Android Intelligence Analysis

The problem with Google's new Duo video chat app

Call me crazy, but this latest effort to reshape our mobile chatting habits sure feels familiar.

Google Duo Video Chat App

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A company called Google just released a new chat app...

Wait -- scratch that. We've all heard it before. Many times. But stick with me for a sec, 'cause we need to do the "reinventing Google messaging" dance once again, only now with a slightly different twist.

This time, the jig is to the tune of Duo, a new video chat app announced at Google's I/O developers' conference in May and officially launched on Android and iOS this morning. Duo gives you a dead-simple way to make one-on-one video calls with other people you know -- no frills, no fuss, no fuzzy connections (in theory, at least, thanks to a Project Fi-like system that seamlessly switches your calls between Wi-Fi and your cellular network to keep you on the best possible connection).

Google Duo App

"Hey! You look happy and casual!" "Hey! So do you!"

By all counts, Duo works pretty well. If you want to make a one-on-one video call to someone in your contacts list, it'll let you do it with reasonably high quality and without much trouble (provided that you have the person's number stored in your phone). On Android devices, the person on the other end can even see live video of you awkwardly staring at your screen before deciding if they want to answer -- which is kinda neat, I guess.

There's one caveat, though, and it's a big one: The person you're calling will also need to have the Duo app installed in order for anything to happen. And solvable of a hurdle as that may seem, I suspect it's gonna be a tough one for Duo to overcome.

We've been down this road before, remember? Back when Google launched Hangouts, many of us in the Android camp went through the oh-so-fun process of trying to convince our friends and family to install the app and use it -- and if your friends and family are anything like mine, shifting their habits probably wasn't easy.

Now enter Duo. The app is coming into an already-overcrowded environment of cross-platform video chatting contenders -- including Google's own aforementioned Hangouts app, not to mention little-known titles like Facebook Messenger, Skype, and Snapchat. And though it does its job well, it still does basically the same thing as those other services (though without many of the additional features they offer).

So let's be real: Outside of Android enthusiasts like us who enjoy trying new technologies and exploring Google's ever-expanding app efforts, do you honestly think most people will go out of their way to download Duo just so they can talk to you on it?

For perspective, when you try to start a Duo call with someone from your phone's contacts list who isn't yet using the app, the service prompts you to "invite" them via a pre-scripted text message:

Google Duo Invitation

I don't know about you, but I can imagine getting three likely responses to that nudge:

  1. [Crickets]
  2. "Uh...what?"
  3. "Can't you just call me on [insert preferred service or method of talking]?"

This is an all-too-familiar effect of Google's messy mobile messaging strategy. I laid it out in a broader sense back when Duo and its yet-to-launch text communication companion, Allo, were announced this spring:

Google's "more is more" messaging strategy depends on users continuing to migrate and adopt the latest newly branded offering (even when it confusingly overlaps with an existing option they'll also continue to need). As anyone who's ever tried to get family and friends to switch messaging apps knows, that's not something most typical users do regularly or willingly. And since these apps depend on your social circles embracing them in order to be effective, the situation rapidly turns into a self-defeating cycle.

That notion of a self-defeating cycle is key here -- because the truth is that no matter how awesome it may be, a communication-centric service is useful only if your friends and family are also signed in and ready to communicate with it. Otherwise, it's like knowing about a super-duper awesome bar but realizing everyone you know is at the ever-so-slightly grungier joint across the street. And realistically speaking, Duo isn't that much different from that other place. So what's gonna get your pals to walk over?

What it boils down to is this: An empty party isn't a party, even if the music and refreshments are second to none. And by starting over yet again with Yet Another New Messaging Service, Google is putting itself in the difficult position of having a quiet little gathering right around the corner from the hoppin' hot spots where everyone's already hanging out.

Convincing people to come inside and stay isn't going to be easy.

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