Google Duo is a new video calling application for iOS and Android mobile devices. It is late to an already saturated market and extremely simple with almost no bells and whistles. So why all the excitement? In my opinion, its killer feature is the fact is that it gets the basic video calling dynamic right by leveraging your existing phone number and contact list.
Just to get it out of the way at the start, I want to make it clear that this is not a videoconferencing app allowing multiple party members to join a call. This is a person to person video calling app (hence the name “Duo”). Therefore, this is not a competitor to Google Hangouts or any of the countless other multiparty videoconferencing solutions. In the simplest terms, this is like a cross-platform FaceTime, allowing us to make person to person video calls between iOS and Android devices.
I knew something was different about Google Duo when I got a text message from my 70 year old father asking me to download the app and call him on it. I’ve called Dad on countless video solutions, but this was the first time he got to one before I did. He isn’t the only one getting turned on to Google Duo quickly, as it became the top free app on Google Play in just two days after release. After playing with it for a few days I have come to the conclusion that it does many things well, but there is one aspect of this app which is really the silver bullet. This magic feature is it’s use of our existing phone numbers.
When you first install the Google Duo app on your iOS or Android device, it asks you for your phone number. Then it sends you a text with a confirmation code. Enter that code and you are all set up. No account creation is required. You don’t even have to enter your email address. Your phone number is your account.
Here is where the magic happens. When you open the app for the first time there is just one button, to make a new call. When you click that button you see your own pre-existing contact list. You don’t have to create a new directory and add your friends (as with many communications apps). Google Duo realizes you already have a contact list in your phone and just taps into that. If someone already has Google Duo, they will be sorted to the top of the list and you can video call them with a click.
If someone does not have Google Duo, when you click their name you will send them a standard text message asking them to download Google Duo. The ability to invite people to join, from within the app itself, is significant. With most apps you have to leave the app and send your friends an email/text/call trying to convince them to join. With Google Duo you send them a text from within the app. Then the process starts all over again as your friend installs the app, puts in his/her phone number, and then can video call you instantly with a click. This is the most natural and seamless way to spread a new video app I have yet to see (other than pre-installing the app on devices à la FaceTime).
There is a lot of talk about the fact that Google Duo is “cross-platform” allowing video between Android and iOS devices. To be perfectly honest, I find this a bit frustrating. There are dozens of existing cross-platform video apps. Are people not aware of this? Have we done such a bad job explaining to the public how video apps work? Cross-platform video is not new, particularly for multiparty/videoconferencing apps. The difference is that these existing apps all require account creation, which can hinder adoption and growth, whereas with Google Duo your phone number is your account. In other words, cross-platform video isn’t that exciting, but cross-platform FaceTime is very exciting.
There are a few other aspects of Google Duo that I appreciate. For example, it supports automatic switching from Wi-Fi to cellular, even during a call. If you walk outside your Wi-Fi range, you don’t drop the call. I also like the UI as it is very clean and uncluttered. During a call you can mute, switch to your forward facing camera, or hang up. That is it. Three buttons. While the fun filters and effects in Snapchat are extremely popular, they would not be helpful here. I want a video calling app that is as simple as making a phone call, and that requires a simple/uncluttered UI.
One final feature worthy of discussion is what Google calls “Knock Knock” (shown in the video above). This is perfectly named because it gives you the same feeling as when someone knocks on your door and you look through the peephole to see who it is. When you call someone, your video goes live before they pick up. As their phone is ringing, they can see you waving at them and making your best “Hey it’s me, pick up!” face. They can see you, but you can’t see them until they answer. This is very different from the typical video call dynamic, where no one shares video until the call is established. I like the Knock Knock feature, but it is very new and very different. There is a chance that people will be uncomfortable with it, but it can easily be disabled in the settings.
This leaves me with one big question for the business video community. Why haven’t any of the leaders in the space come up with such a friction free way to make video calls before now? Every other solution (other than FaceTime) that I am aware of requires account creation, or at least requires tying to an existing (Google, Facebook, etc.) account. How many times have we said that we don’t want video to be this weird, new, different, scary technology? We just want to make video calls the way we have always made phone calls, by using our phone numbers. How hard is that?
I guess at the end of the day, Google Duo really is just a cross-platform FaceTime. But isn’t that just what we always wanted?