Google Duo Missed the Video Chat Mark

Earlier this week, Google rolled out its new cross-platform video chat app Google Duo, allowing for simple face-to-face video communications. The app is positioned as an alternative to Apple’s FaceTime video chat because it runs both on iOS and Android, making it easier to call friends no matter the mobile device. Duo’s simplicity also is played up. But does Duo really bring anything to the table? Not really.

We’re happy that Google is promoting video calling on mobile; roughly 46 percent of U.S. adults never make a video call on a mobile device, according to Google figures. Promoting easy, cross-platform video chat drives adoption, and we certainly are happy when people discover the benefits of video chat. Unfortunately, Google Duo is pretty limited and misses the mark.

Duo doesn’t support group calling, an important feature for business. It doesn’t come with video effects like augmented reality puppy dog ears, lessening its appeal in the crowded consumer space. It doesn’t support text chat, an important feature both for business and consumer use. Duo also doesn’t connect with Google’s other real-time communications offerings such as Google Chat, Hangouts, Spaces, the upcoming Allo messaging product, or the Android SMS app.

In a space already crowded with video chat options, Duo does basic one-on-one video calling that every other product also features, including more integrated Facebook Messenger and Apple’s FaceTime.

This is the point, however, according to Google.

“The logic is that [apps] will succeed if they’re solving a use case really well,” Nick Fox told TechCrunch, Google’s VP of product management for consumer communication.

The app stresses simplicity by not including any bells and whistles, a move that keeps the focus on human interaction. It also focuses on speed and reliability by running on the WebRTC framework, which better handles video quality in areas where network connectivity is poor or variable.

The problem is that Duo doesn’t actually solve its use case really well.

Duo Video Chat Lacks Context

Simplicity is important when it comes to video chat. Google got that right. Downloading software, making sure both people are using the same operating system or learning a new product can serve as a barrier to easy video chat use and take the focus off human communication.

Duo might be simple, but users still must both have the same app installed; if you want to call someone without Duo, the program sends an invite via SMS with a download link. Contrast this with an app or program that has Agora.io’s video chat SDK/API embedded into it, which runs on any platform or within a web browser and does not require software or plugins at all. Users click “connect” and they instantly start their video chat.

The Duo app also might be available in 78 languages, but it doesn’t work globally, yet. Specifically, it isn’t available in China. Our embedded video chat, on the other hand, supports users no matter their location. This is one reason why Lingoland recently chose Agora.io for its international language-learning app.

More to the point, Google Duo lacks context. Facebook video chat is widely used because users already are engaged with Facebook when they want to make a video call. They don’t actively choose Facebook’s video chat option in most cases, they use it because the functionality is baked into an app or web page they’re already using.

This is the same with FaceTime and many of the other successful video chat options.

Most users don’t care about the video chat platform, they just want to easily connect in context. This is the value proposition of in-app video chat solutions such as ours because it embeds video chat where the user needs it. If a user is in an app, they want to call from within that app. If they are visiting a web page, they want to call from that web page.

Most users don’t want to hunt for their Duo app and send an invite to their friend with a download link before the video chat starts. That’s not actually simple.

Doesn’t Solve Poor Network Connectivity

Duo’s other selling point is stronger. Poor performance is the bane of video chat, especially on mobile devices and in developing countries. Its use of WebRTC is an excellent foundation for added reliability.

“Duo’s best bet will be the developing world thanks to its optimization for poor network connections like 2G,” noted the TechCrunch story. “It can degrade video quality or switch to audio calling if there’s weak connectivity, and it can seamlessly handoff between cell and Wi-Fi connections in mid-call without dropping.”

We know the value of WebRTC firsthand because we also use it for reliable video transmission with our real-time communications platform. But we know that WebRTC alone is not enough, which is why we also manage and adjust quality and transmission routes in real-time with close to 100 global data centers. We also focus on last-mile optimization, testing our video chat service on more than 4,000 different devices to make sure the service works no matter the place or the device. Google Duo only works with devices that run iOS 9 or later, and Android Jelly Bean or newer.

Google Duo might be a step up from FaceTime in terms of reliability, but making a video chat service with the truly reliable quality of experience requires more focus than we assume Google is throwing at a consumer service with an uncertain future.

So Google Duo misses the mark. It is simple, but it lacks context and still requires a software download. It offers improved reliability, but it doesn’t bring mission-critical reliability and any app that uses our video chat SDK can beat it.

The release of Google Duo focuses attention on the growing importance of video chat, which is good. The only problem is that the service doesn’t actually solve its use case all that well.