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Google strives to make its Duo video-calling app a FaceTime killer

Google's Duo rolls out new audio-calling feature to users around the world

Is there really room for yet another video-calling app? Google certainly thinks so with Duo, and it has the numbers to back it up. In a little more than a week after launching, the app was downloaded more than 5 million times on Android, and its popularity has only continued. In March, Google introduced users in Brazil to audio calling in Duo, which allowed folks to easily move between video and audio-only calls. And now, Duo’s technical lead Justin Uberti has announced that audio calling is globally available.

At its core, Duo is a FaceTime-like offering for Android and iOS that Google first showed off back in May. The app is all about simplicity — you’ll find no superfluous features here, with the app pretty much a case of tap-and-talk.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted about the 5 million milestone last summer, when the app shot to the top of the free apps list on the Google Play Store within the first two days of its offering.

Duo focuses on reliability. Aware of how frustrating most video-calling apps can be, with calls temporarily dropping out or crashing entirely, Google claims to have created something altogether more stable.

“We’ve built Duo to be fast and reliable, so that video calls connect quickly and work well even on slower networks,” Google software engineer Justin Uberti wrote in a message launching the new app. “Call quality adjusts to changing network conditions to keep you connected [so] when bandwidth is limited, Duo will gracefully reduce the resolution to keep the call going smoothly.”

This same concept applies to Duo’s audio calls, which is to say that you’ll be able to maintain connection even in 2G networks. And as tech companies focus more and more on markets with slower, older infrastructure (like India), apps like Duo will become ever more important.

Knock Knock

Duo’s most notable feature, however, is something called “Knock Knock.” No, it’s not a built-in joke generator that automatically offers up corny word-play gags at the conclusion of every call, but a feature that lets you see live video of the caller before you even answer. It’s supposed to “give you a sense of what they’re up to” (hopefully not picking their nose) before you take the call.

If after 30 seconds of absurd face-pulling (or whatever other antics that your buddy thinks will persuade you to pick up) the call remains unanswered, it’ll automatically disconnect, leaving your friend to wonder if you weren’t available or were simply ignoring them.

Google insists Knock Knock “makes video calling more spontaneous and welcoming, helping you connect with the person before you even pick up,” though some users may consider it as little more than a creepy gimmick they could well do without.

The company has endeavored to keep the software simple, but there are still restrictions that mean not everyone will be able to use it. For example, it’ll only work on Android handsets running Jelly Bean (v. 4.1) or later, and iPhones running iOS 9 or later. And the requirement of your phone number to get started means it won’t work with tablets or other devices like the iPod Touch.

Duo’s arrival leads us to expect that Google’s text-based messaging app, Allo, will also land soon. You can learn more about that particular offering here.

So does Google’s new Duo app have what it takes to persuade users already happy with FaceTime or Skype – or messaging apps with video-calling capabilities already built in like Snapchat and Facebook Messenger – to take the software for a spin? Pulling in users could turn out to be quite a challenge for the web giant, but it’s hoping Duo’s ease of use and lack of flashy extras will be enough to make a success of its offering and keep it from going the same way as many of its past efforts, among them this, this, and this. And all of these.

Article originally published on 08-16-2016. Updated on 04-10-2017 by Lulu Chang: Added news of Duo’s audio calling rollout to users globally.

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Trevor Mogg
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Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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