Google launches Duo with hopes to take video calling mainstream


As early as 1927’s Metropolis, video calling has been a staple of science fiction. Back in those days, and throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it wasn’t good enough to just hear the voice of your loved ones – people in the future wanted to see the other person’s reactions: every warm wrinkling of the eyes and inadvertent smile (or rolling eyes, and glances at watches, depending on how well the conversation is going).

How far we’ve come – now that we have the technology, we barely use it. Sure, Skype is hugely popular, but that’s mainly because it allows people to avoid long-distance call charges, rather than because we can see each others’ faces.

Google, like Apple before it with FaceTime, is trying to make video calling go mainstream, and is launching Google Duo on iOS and (of course) Android. While neither have launched in the UK yet, Google says the worldwide rollout is happening over the next few days, so it shouldn’t be long.

Still, making video calls popular is a tall order, so what’s Google’s strategy to achieve this? Simplicity. As the search giant wrote on its blog, the intention is to “take the complexity out of video calling”, and to achieve that they have taken a leaf out of WhatsApp’s book: there are no accounts – Duo ties to your phone number and works on your phone’s contact list, and calling one is as simple as tapping their name.

That’s all it does: there are no bells and whistles here – no conference calling, and no funny Snapchat-style filters. The aim is to just get the basics right, and make them so simple that anyone can feel comfortable jumping straight in.

The company acknowledges that one of the things that makes video calling a frustrating experience is when the connection gets choppy. Google says that Duo has been designed to sidestep this where possible, lowering the resolution automatically in response to network conditions, in the same way Netflix does. It’s also happy switching from Wi-Fi to 4G, meaning you should be able to continue your conversations on the go (although that’s possibly an even bigger jump to mass adoption – how many people are happy making public video calls?)

Finally, something a little more frivolous, but quite a nice feature: “Knock Knock.” When you get a Duo call notification, their video feed starts early, so even before you pick up, you can see them doing their thing, for lovely moments like this:

…although you can bet the majority of pre-screened calls will be less well choreographed than that. Still, nice to be able to screen your calls with a face (definitely only faces), rather than just a number.

Google says the app will be live worldwide in the next few days, although it’s currently only listed as “pre-register” on the Play store. Watch this space.

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