Google and Apple have battled each other for years for primacy over mobile users. Apple has proferred its superior devices, like the iPhone. Google has fought back with its Android operating system and a series of mobile apps that are more flexible and compatible with a broader set of devices than Apple’s apps.
On Tuesday, Google underscored that strategy with the release of its latest mobile app: Duo, a video-calling app that is a direct alternative to Apple’sFaceTime
The app fits squarely into Google’s playbook in mobile. Over the last few years, Google has increasingly offered its important software and internet services, including Google Maps, Google Photos and Google Docs, to iPhone customers. All of those apps were compelling alternatives to Apple’s proprietary apps, like Apple Maps, Photos and Notes, because they work on a wider variety of devices, including Macs, Windows PCs, Android devices and iPhones.
Duo is no exception. People can only use FaceTime to call others who have Apple devices. But Duo lets you place video calls between Android and iPhone users, and sizably increases the universe of people with whom you can hold a video conversation.
“You shouldn’t have to worry about whether your call will connect, or if your friend is using the same type of device as you are,” Google said in a statement, in a veiled jab at Apple. “It’s no wonder that nearly half of U.S. adults never make video calls on mobile.”
All of this feeds into Google’s strategy to attract iPhone users over to Android. Google’s apps generally work better on Android devices than on iPhones, so the more that people get hooked on Google’s core apps, the less incentive there is to stay loyal to Apple.
Nick Fox, Google’s head of communication products, said the top priority with Duo was to build a great product and to increase the use of video calling among Android users. But he added that making Android more attractive to iPhone owners was a secondary motive. He said that Duo’s appeal was that it was simple to use, fast and more widely accessible.
“Our view is video calling should work for everybody,” he said. “If you can only call half the people you know, that’s very limiting.”
Apple does not profess to be worried by Google’s moves. When the iPhone maker reported falling sales
last month, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, repeatedly highlighted that the rate at which people were switching from Android-based devices to iPhones was the highest the company had seen.
“Our year-to-date iPhone sales to switchers are the greatest we’ve seen in any nine-month period,” Mr. Cook said in the call, without disclosing precise figures.
An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment beyond Mr. Cook’s comments.
I decided to test Duo to see how the new app plays into the debate about whether iPhone users should consider switching to Android devices. After trying an early copy of Duo and comparing it side by side with FaceTime, I found that Duo was just as intuitive and fun to use as FaceTime, but that it was too early to tell which service was more reliable.
A Short History
First, a little context about Duo and where it fits into the universe of Google apps. The Silicon Valley company announced in May at its annual developer conference that Duo would be coming. The app is solely dedicated to video chats between two people, the company said, to make video calling simpler to access.
This is not the first time Google has provided video calling. Google started offering mobile video calling several years ago inside its Hangouts app, which also includes messaging and voice-calling capabilities. The video-calling feature in Hangouts will remain intact.
Crystal Dahlen, a Google spokeswoman, said the name Duo conveyed that the app was designed for one-to-one video calling on mobile devices, in contrast to Hangouts, which lets groups of people make video calls over mobile devices and computers. Duo will roll out globally over the next few days.
FaceTime, in contrast, is now six years old. When Apple unveiled the video-calling ability in iPhones in 2010, Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, said he had dreamed of mobile video calling since he grew up watching “The Jetsons” and “Star Trek.” Apple later expanded FaceTime to work with iPads and Macs, among other Apple products. The company has not published statistics on FaceTime use, but the technology helped make mobile video calling mainstream.
Duo Versus FaceTime
The Duo app is downloadable and free through Google’s Play store and Apple’s App Store. When you open the Duo app, there is just one button: video call. Tapping that loads your contacts list, and from there you can choose whom to call.
Duo starts streaming video to a recipient as soon as the call is placed, meaning the person you are calling will be able to see you waving or making faces before he or she picks up. Google calls this feature Knock Knock. It can be disabled in case you have friends who are likely to make inappropriate hand gestures.
With FaceTime, you place a call directly through the iPhone’s contacts list or through the separate FaceTime app. The recipient does not see the video streaming until after the call is answered.
I placed video calls over Duo and FaceTime over a strong Wi-Fi connection as well as a weak cellular connection. In the tests, the video calls looked clearer on Duo, though that is an unreliable measure because very few people are currently able to use Duo, so the network is unrealistically uncongested. When more people use Duo, we can expect the picture quality to vary depending on network traffic and internet speeds.
There is a minor difference for Duo between Android and iPhone users. An Android user receiving a Duo call will see a Knock Knock video on the home screen by default. Those using Apple devices will see a notification on top of the screen and will have to open the Duo app before seeing Knock Knock in action. Otherwise, the app works the same for both Android and iPhone.
Against the Rest
I also compared Duo calls with video calls placed over Microsoft’s Skype and Facebook Messenger. Against those two, Duo’s simplicity won hands down.
In Facebook’s Messenger app, the video-calling feature is embedded in the corner of a message box, so it is hard to find and not intuitive to use. In fact, every call I have ever made with Messenger has been by mistake.
On Skype, the video-calling feature is in a place similar to Messenger’s, in the corner of a message box. More annoyingly, to find other Skype users you have to manually add them to your Skype contacts list or toggle on an option to synchronize your address book with Skype.
The Bottom Line
For now, FaceTime is just as intuitive as Duo so I see no compelling reason to use Duo over FaceTime to call iPhone users.
But if I had to video call an Android user, I would use Duo over other video-calling services like Skype or Facebook Messenger, which have more cluttered interfaces than Duo’s single-button approach.