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Google Duo will aim to be the No.1 video-calling app, ahead of Skype. Photo: iStockphoto
Google Duo will aim to be the No.1 video-calling app, ahead of Skype. Photo: iStockphoto

Google’s new video-call app and why we won’t use it

Google has launched its video-calling app, Duo, but we don't seem that keen on seeing the people we call

Skype, owned by Microsoft, is the most popular video-calling app globally. It is as synonymous with video calls as Xerox is with photocopying. But if you compare Skype’s numbers with the most popular instant-messaging and voice-calling apps, there is a vast chasm. Skype has around 300 million active users, while WhatsApp, the popular instant messaging app owned by Facebook, has over one billion users.

When video-calling became available on personal devices, it was hailed as the mode of communication of the future. Why would you want to do a regular phone call when you could see the person you were talking to, picking up on all the visual cues that you would miss on a regular call? Yet, several years on, video calls are not the preferred method of connecting.

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Instead, there has been a surge in the popularity of instant-messaging applications. WhatsApp is now in 109 countries and has over 70 million users in India. It is used mostly for instant messaging, though you can also make voice calls and will soon be able to make video calls too. Facebook Messenger, with more than 900 million downloads, and WeChat, with more than 700 million downloads, have also made significant headway.

So why are people still texting when they can talk to someone face-to-face using their phones?

First, video-calling apps tend to be cumbersome to use. On Skype, for example, you have to download the app, then create an ID that you have to enter every time you open the app—another password to remember—and then begin adding friends. Those friends, of course, need to already have Skype IDs themselves, or you will need to send them invites to join. The process is similar for Viber, which has 249 million users.

WhatsApp cleverly used people’s own phone numbers as their IDs. So, there is no need to create a username and password. Google has done something similar with its recently launched video-calling app Duo. Once you download Duo, you enter your phone number, then a PIN is sent to it, and you are good to go. You can begin scrolling through your contacts and call anyone who also has Duo. The only issue at the moment is that not many people, in India at least, seem to have downloaded the app, so you’ll probably have to invite most of your contacts to download Duo before you can reach them on it.

FaceTime, Apple’s video-calling app, gets around many of the steps that its competitors require. It’s pre-installed on Apple devices, doesn’t require a username and allows you to directly call people on your phone’s contact list. The problem, though, is that it is only available on iOS, so you can’t call anyone who doesn’t have an Apple device. Google is likely to begin preloading Duo on Android devices, and the app is available on iOS too, which could make it popular.

One thing neither Apple nor Google have managed to do, though, is find a way to get their video-calling apps to work smoothly on 3G and 4G connections. When we tried using Duo, the calls kept dropping. Instant messaging apps are easier to use—if you send a message when your phone has temporarily lost connectivity, it will be sent when the signal returns.

There are several other reasons video-calling has not replaced regular calls or instant messaging. Synchronizing conversations can be difficult. While text messages can be responded to at a convenient time and voice calls can be redirected to voice mail inboxes, for video calls, both parties need to be available at the same time. Also, you have to make sure you’re presentable for a video call, while you could make a phone call or text someone in your underpants if you’re unwinding for the day.

These obstacles mean video-calling apps are actually beginning to add an option to make voice calls. FaceTime did it in 2014, and Google Duo is expected to do it soon.

It would seem that the dream of seeing the person you are talking to on the phone is not one we actually want to realize.

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