Duo is Google’s new app for video calls. It’s like Apple’s Facetime or Microsoft’s Skype or the video calling feature built into Facebook’s Messenger. But an early promo put together by the team building Duo showed off a new twist. When people called, you could see them even before you answered—a kind of face-based caller ID. You could get into the call before it started.
The promo billed the feature as a new way to reduce the awkwardness of video calls and increase the chance that people would actually use Duo. The only trouble was: it wasn’t really part of the app. The team was operating kinda like Jeff Bezos and Amazon—Bezos says that before building something, you should write a faux press release describing what it does. But after seeing the clip, the team realized it was the crucial twist the app needed. They called it “Knock, Knock.”
“It wasn’t part of the initial spec,” says Nick Fox, who oversees this and many other mobile communication tools at Google, including its new Project Fi wireless service. “But there was this light bulb that went off.”
And a good thing it did. “Knock, Knock” is what makes Duo—released today in the Android Play Store and the Apple App Store—different from other video calling apps. It’s a tiny change. But it could make video calling more comfortable for everyone.
Though video calling apps have existed for years, they are not a default way of communicating. Only about 56 percent of millennials even use video calling apps, a figure drops to 30 percent among middle-aged types, says John Buffone, an analyst with research firm NPD. A recent study from Google itself, one in six American adults say they don’t like video calling because it feels rude. The promise of video calling is that it can make talking on the phone a lot more like talking in person, that they can give you all the nuance and emotion of a face-to-face chat. But right now, the apps are just awkward.
True virtualized face-to-face communication won’t really arrive until the kind of virtual reality described by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others becomes widespread. In the meantime, Google is offering up Duo, an exceedingly simple app designed for video calls and nothing else. It’s really just a big video window that hooks into your address book. “There are very few settings, very few buttons, very few things to tap,” Fox says.
That said, Duo does give you options that aspire to make video calling less awkward and more personal. You can set “Knock, Knock” to operate only when you get calls from people you now well. In a sense, that’s what Facebook is already trying to do with Messenger, and it already has 900 million users of the app as potential video callers. But Fox believes that video calling needs a different, even more intimate approach. Video calling is something that you do with a much smaller group of people than messaging, and it deserves its own app, its own dedicated interface, he says.
(It might also help to eliminate the awkwardness factor that, in an echo of Project Fi, Duo will automatically move your video calls between Wi-Fi and your cellular network—at least in theory, Duo will drop your video calls less often.)
At least one data point bears out the idea that a dedicated app can help normalize the idea of video calling. Some 69 percent of millennials are making video calls on iPhones, as opposed to 46 percent on Androids, according to NDP. And that’s likely thanks to Facetime, a native iOS app that does nothing but video calls. It’s telling that millennials are more into video calling than all those people who grew up when video calling was just a thing on The Jetsons, and more and more people are making video calls with each passing month. Duo is Google’s way of giving this trend an added nudge. One day, years down the road, video calling might not need a special name anymore. It will just be how calling someone else works.