Google Duo vs Apple Facetime vs Skype

Alex Kidman 19 May 2016

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Google’s latest communications app allows for face-to-face video calling, which sounds rather familiar. How does Google Duo compare to Facetime or Skype?

Video calling used to be the stuff of cheesy science fiction serials, but in 2016 it’s a solid and rather well established reality. That made the news that Google plans to introduce another video calling application into the market rather surprising. Google has a lot of form in disrupting markets to be sure, but there are some big players already in that space.

Google Duo: What will it do?

Google’s pitch for Duo is that it’s designed to facilitate one-to-one video calling in as simple a fashion as possible. That puts it squarely in the sights of Apple’s Facetime, a similar video calling application that sells itself on its ease of use. Google’s pitch for Duo -- you can’t download it just yet -- is that it will work well on lower-quality connections, something that Facetime itself often struggles with.

Facetime is also notable for being part of the Apple ecosystem and nothing else. You can Facetime from a MacBook to an iPad Pro or iPhone 6s, but not from Android phones or Windows PCs.

That’s where Duo may have something of an edge, with Google promising Duo apps for both Android and iOS platforms in the US summer. It remains to be seen whether it’s able to get the Duo app past the Apple App store barriers for a simultaneous launch on both iOS and Android, or whether it will be Android-only at first.

Cross-platform compatibility isn’t a unique feature for video calling apps, however, because that’s something that Skype has done for a very long time now, with client applications not only for iOS and Android, but also Windows Phone, Windows 10, Mac and just about any other relatively modern operating environment you’d care to name. Yes, there is a Skype for Linux.

Skype has an advantage over Duo in that it supports group calling, although that could perhaps be said to be a complicating factor that Duo dodges, or possibly just hands off to Google Hangouts instead. We’re hopeful that Duo’s video quality is better than the average Hangouts session, however.

Where Duo seeks to differentiate itself is with a feature that Google calls "Knock Knock". It’s a silly name, but a potentially useful feature. With Android calls, before you start the call, your selfie camera kicks into life. When you dial, what pops up on the receiver’s screen is live video of your selfie cam, so they can see you and what you’re doing before they pick up, at which point the call segues straight into video they can watch. We can see some potential for misdemeanours there, but leaving that aside, it could be a handy way to tell if a call is coming from your angry boss or your paramour.

Duo isn’t yet available but will be later in the year. As all three services are "free" for video calling -- but you still pay for data and of course the hardware to run them on -- you could conceivably switch between all three as the mood or need takes you. Google isn't betting the farm on Duo; it's just another Google communications product in a sea of similar offerings. It might become a key way to communicate, but it could equally be that in a year or two, Duo joins that great graveyard of Google products that once were, like Google Wave, Google Reader, iGoogle, Google Health or Google Aardvark.

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