Google Duo, a new video chat app that works exclusively on phones, is getting released today. I’ve been using it for about a week and I can tell you that it’s fast, easy to use, and devoid of complicated bells and whistles. You tap on the face of the person you want to call, they answer, and you have a one-on-one video chat going. Nobody who uses this app can say that Google didn’t achieve its goal of creating a video chat app that’s relentlessly, explicitly designed solely for phones.
That effort is so single-minded I can’t decide if it’s timid or bold.
First, a bit about how Duo works. It’s available on both Android phones and iPhones. When you sign up, the app checks your phone number from your SIM and then sends you a confirmation text. That’s the whole setup process — there are no accounts to create nor friend lists to maintain. It’s tied directly to your contacts list and your phone number.
That’s great for simplicity, but bad if you want to use Duo on anything other than your phone. It’s also unable to make conference calls, put Hangouts-style funny pirate hats on your head during a call, or offer just about any other fancy feature you might expect from a video conference app.
Duo’s radical simplicity is by design, says vice president of Google’s communications division, Nick Fox. “By being laser-focused on mobile,” he says, “it enables us to just make sure that we were doing a great, wonderful job on that case. … For us, we thought ‘amazing on mobile, nothing on desktop’ was the better approach.”
There is one feature in Duo that feels genuinely new: it’s called “Knock Knock.” When you receive a call on Android (it doesn’t work on the iPhone), your entire screen starts showing the live video from your caller before you even answer. It lets you see who’s calling — and lets the caller make funny faces to try to entice you to answer. Google’s promo video for Duo emphasizes it heavily:
In my testing, Knock Knock worked very well — and it has the added benefit of making the call start immediately. The video call is already running the nanosecond you swipe up to answer it. “Instead of the call starting with frustration and confusion,” Fox says, “you start with a smile because you know it already works.” I don’t know about the smile, but I do know that Duo calls started without all the “Hello, are you there?” that I typically experience with most other video and audio calls.
For those worried about people hijacking their screen with a video feed while they’re at dinner or a meeting, a few notes to ease your mind. First, Knock Knock only works with people you already have saved in your contacts — so random people won’t show up. Second, you can block a caller if you like — but take note that since Duo doesn’t have its own independent friends list, blocking a caller on Duo blocks them everywhere. Last, you can turn the feature off entirely if you don’t like it.
Google also has done a lot of work on the back end to make things feel immediate. It’s based on WebRTC, with some added technical underpinnings to make the call automatically ratchet the quality up or down depending on your connection quality. It’s even able to maintain the call when you switch from Wi-Fi to cellular. After a very brief hiccup, the call just keeps on going.
I mostly tested Duo on a Nexus 5X (running the latest Android Nougat Beta), where call quality was mostly good — better on Wi-Fi, but never so bad that it dropped completely. On the iPhone 6S, call quality was equally good. However, because Google doesn’t have the same ability to integrate on iOS as it does on Android, there are a few hassles: no Knock Knock, and you have to unlock the phone before you answer the call.
Duo is the second of the two apps Google announced at its developer conference this past May. The other is the AI-enhanced text messaging app Allo, for which Google hasn’t yet announced a release date. That’s odd enough, but perhaps not as confusing as Google’s overall strategy with communication apps: instead of fixing its unified solution, Hangouts, Google has opted to release two different (but slightly related) messaging apps: one for video and one for text.
Neither app is designed to replace Google’s other video and messaging app, Hangouts. Instead, Hangouts will continue to exist with a more tightly focused mission: serving enterprise users, where Fox says we can expect “it will increasingly be more integrated with Google Apps suite.” It will still be available for consumers, of course, but those users won’t be the focus of future product development.
And Fox is also not especially concerned that Google is offering a multiplicity of communication apps. He sees Google’s products as split broadly into three bands: Allo and Duo for consumers; Hangouts for the enterprise; and services that are more carrier focused — like SMS, RCS, and even the Phone app. Fox believes that consumers simply aren’t confused by a multiplicity of messaging apps — whether they’re made by Google or not — “People use the apps that their friends are using,” he says. And he’s excited to see Duo (and, later, Allo) compete with all of them head-to-head.
How Duo will actually compete was (and is) one of my biggest questions. Why use Duo when Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, FaceTime, Hangouts, and any number of other options exist? Is Google going to leverage the massive power of the Android install base somehow? Will Duo be part of the standard suite of Google Play apps preinstalled on the vast majority of Android phones (outside of China)? “We haven’t made decisions on that yet,” says Fox. “We want to get it out there, see how it does, and then I see distribution as the next step rather than the first step.”
When I said up top that I couldn’t decide whether Google’s strategy with Duo was bold or timid, this is what I was referring to. It’s not going to be the automatic default for all Android phones, replacing phone calls in the way that iMessage replaces SMS. Google isn’t ready to go there just yet, which feels timid.
But it’s also bold. In this incredibly crowded marketplace, Google is forcing Duo to compete on its own merits. You can invite somebody to use it by sending them a text from inside the app, but otherwise the plan seems to just be to see how it is received in the marketplace. I asked some variant of “how are you going to get users for this thing” no fewer than four times in my hour with Fox, and every time the answer boiled down to this: “We’re focused on building great apps that people love and distribution will follow that.”
I have no idea if that plan will work: sometimes boldness is just naiveté. But I can’t help but respect the clarity of purpose behind the creation of Duo. It’s aggressively, obsessively focused on making the best possible mobile experience for video chat, at the expense of all else. He said no to desktop, no to conference calling, no even to allowing the same account to work on multiple devices. For the Duo team, getting “mobile first” right meant demanding it be “mobile only.”
Duo does one-on-one video chat very well, which is what Google set out to make it do. The question now is whether or not that’s enough.
The central London summit has been convened following evidence to suggest that social networking sites and messaging services were used to co-ordinate criminality during the riots earlier this month.
The meeting will focus on ways of improving the technological and legal capabilities of the police in the future.
Commenting on today’s meeting, a spokesperson from the Home Office explained: “These discussions will help us determine how law enforcement and the networks can work better together.”
The spokesperson continued: “Among the issues to be discussed is whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
The Home Office statement also says: “Social networking is not a cause of the recent disturbances, but a means of enabling criminals to communicate. We are working with the police to see what action can be taken to prevent access to those services by customers identified as perpetrators of disorder or other criminal action.”
The Home Secretary explained her intention to meet with social media representatives during a speech in Parliament on 11 August.
At that time, Theresa May told MPs: “Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and messaging services like BlackBerry Messenger have been used to co-ordinate criminality, and stay one step ahead of the police.”
“I will convene a meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers, police and representatives from the social media industry to work out how we can improve the technological and related legal capabilities of the police.”
Representatives of the three major social networks used during the London and wider England riots earlier this month – Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger service – have all been called to the Home Office.
Facebook has confirmed its attendance, while Research In Motion (RIM) – developer of the excellent BlackBerry smartphones – said it “welcomes the opportunity for consultation together with other companies in the technology and telecommunications industry”.
A statement from Facebook says: “We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK at this challenging time”.
Pleasingly, many responsible Facebook users ‘self-policed’ the site and duly reported any content they felt may be deliberately inciting violence or disorder.
Two men have been given jail terms for trying to incite the riots on Facebook. 20-year-old Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, were both sentenced to four years, although neither of the events the men attempted to organise actually took place.
The sentences were passed by the Crown Court in Chester.
The Crown Prosecution Service stated that both men pleaded guilty to ‘intentionally encouraging another to assist the commission of an indictable offence’ under Sections 44 and 46 of the Serious Crime Act 2007.
The presiding judge said that, even though the men’s call for violence and rioting was not ‘actioned’ by anyone, the sentences were meant to act as a ‘deterrent’ in the wake of the riots.
Civil rights and penal reform groups have subsequently criticised some of the sentences handed down as ‘disproportionate.’
Today’s meeting comes in the wake of David Cameron’s speech in Parliament when he suggested that Government should be able to ‘disconnect’ social and phone networks to prevent civil disorder.
“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media,” said the Prime Minister. “Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill.”
Speaking at the specially convened Parliamentary session, Cameron continued: “When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them, so we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Any move to ‘disconnect’ potential rioters would certainly mark a fundamental shift in Britain’s stated Internet policy, with free speech advocates likely to accuse the Government of attempting to usher in a new wave of online censorship.
Cameron also said: “There were an awful lot of hoaxes and false trails made on Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger. We require a major piece of work to make sure that the police have all the technological capabilities they need to hunt down and beat the criminals.”
Certainly, Research in Motion is under some degree of pressure to explain its actions during the riots after BlackBerry users apparently employed the secure BlackBerry Messenger application to disseminate targets for rioting and looting.
Twitter’s officials famously said during the riots that “the tweets must flow”, but that hasn’t been seen as a responsible stance by all law enforcement agencies.
Meantime, it’s reported that MI5 and electronics interception agency GCHQ have been brought in by the Government in an attempt to ‘crack’ the BlackBerry encryption so as to help prevent further disorder.
Google is announcing a new messaging app today. It’s called Allo and its main feature is a Google assistant that’s built right in. Google says it’ll be available later this summer — for free — on both iOS and Android.
Allo (pronounced like “Aloe” and not like “‘allo, guv’nor!”) is a mobile-only app that you might think is meant to replace Google’s other messaging app, Hangouts. But you’d be wrong. Allo is explicitly meant to be a fresh start for Google’s new communication’s division (which also runs Hangouts and Project Fi).
“It’s really liberating to start from scratch sometimes,” says Erik Kay, director of engineering, communications products. And Allo does feel like a fresh new start. Its interface is clean and easy to understand, with some clever little innovations on what you’ve seen in other chat apps like WhatsApp or Messenger.
Let’s start with the basics. You sign up with your phone number and you can connect your Google account to it, though there’s no need to. You can see the usual chat app stuff: there are sent and received indicators, emoji, and a big set of custom stickers. Amit Fulay, group product manager on Google’s communications products team, says that Google commissioned stickers from artists with an eye toward ensuring there was a wide diversity of options — stuff that would work in India, as well as in America.
When you send a photo, it shows up full-bleed in the screen and you can even doodle on it if you want. Another neat trick: before you hit send, you can drag your finger up or down on the button to enlarge or shrink the text. Google calls it “WhisperShout.”
If that were all there were to Allo, it wouldn’t really have a reason to exist. It certainly wouldn’t give you a good reason to switch away from whatever chat app (or, more likely, chat apps) you’re currently using. But Google thinks the secret weapon it has in the battle for your thumbs is… Google.
More specifically, it’s the Google assistant, the new conversational interface you can use to get information from Google. You can set up a conversation with @google and ask it all sorts of questions. It’ll respond with the stuff you’ve come to expect from typing into a Google search box — but it’ll also engage in a bit of a conversation with you. It’ll suggest further searches, and give you ways to do things that Google can do — like book a table with OpenTable.
And Google’s chatbot is smarter than other chatbots. It has the power of Google’s Knowledge Graph, which understands many thousands of “entities” and how they relate to each other. So you can ask more complicated questions that couldn’t be resolved just by crawling the web. And if you get bored, you can ask @google to start a game like “guess the movie based on a string of emoji.”
But where @google gets more interesting is inside your conversation with your friends. When they send you a message, Allo puts some suggested replies at the bottom. They’re called “suggestion chips” and they’re powered by a massive and massively smart machine learning engine.
In the example Google showed us, a graduation photo came through. The suggested replies were along the lines of “Congratulations!” and “You look great!” Think for a moment about what it takes to do that. Google recognized it was a graduation photo and then went a step beyond just guessing what it was, it guessed at appropriate responses. And even beyond that, the responses are grouped into little meaning clusters — so you get a range of possible reactions instead of just variations on the same theme.
Google builds up these suggestion chips based on the machine learning it can apply to the way that you actually type. Kay told us that his suggestions were the text-version of smileys because he prefers to use those over actual emoji.
When you “invoke” @google in a chat either by hitting one of those suggestion chips or just typing @google, both you and everybody you’re chatting with can see and respond to the answers. So picking a restaurant becomes a group activity where everybody is looking at what you’re looking for and helping pick the right one. And debates about who starred in that movie you saw can be resolved immediately and definitively.
At this point, you’re probably a little creeped out, so let me tell you what the privacy rules are with Allo. First, all conversations are encrypted “on the wire,” which means that nobody on the internet can read them as you send your message. They are read by Google’s servers, but Kay assures me that the data is stored “transiently,” which is to say that Google doesn’t keep your chat logs around to be subpoenaed. And Fulay adds that Google doesn’t assign identity to the chat logs on those servers even then.
If that’s not strong enough for you, there’s also an Incognito Mode — similar to Incognito Mode on Chrome. When you enable it, your conversation is encrypted end-to-end and Google can’t read it at all. And notifications from Incognito chats don’t reveal their contents on your lock screen, either. It means you won’t get the power of the Google assistant, but it also ensures a higher level of privacy. Both Kay and Fulay tell me that Google plans on adding other features to Incognito in the future, such as expiring messages.
ALLO IS FAST AND GOOGLE IS POWERFUL, BUT IS THAT ENOUGH?
At several points during the demo, I couldn’t help but think that nothing that I was seeing the Google assistant do was strictly new. But Google, it turns out, is really good at this sort of thing and has been for a long time — so even though the only new functionality here is the conversational interface itself, it still felt pretty powerful.
But there are limits to Allo, and the biggest one is that the only chatbot you’ll be talking to is Google. The company isn’t diving into the deep end with chatbots in the way that virtually every other tech giant on the planet (save Apple) seems to be doing. Kay says that Google wants “to be thoughtful about bringing multiple things in until we get the interaction right.”
That’s probably a fine decision for now, especially given the lackluster experience many have had with bots on Facebook Messenger so far. But this is a space that’s heating up quickly, so Google may find that it needs to move quickly to keep up.
Speaking of keeping up: Google flat-out hasn’t in the messaging space. Hangouts was supposed to be a grand reset and Google’s big entry into the field — the company told us as much three years ago. Instead, Hangouts has become something of a rueful, inside joke among Android users. The iOS version is more advanced, but it too could stand to be cleaned up a bit. On the desktop, it still feels like it was designed for a previous age.
And so the big question that any messaging app — especially one from Google — has to face is really simple: how are you going to get people to use your app? Whatsapp and Messenger are nearing or passing a billion monthly active users, and there’s an army of chat apps vying for users installs too: WeChat, QQ, Line. And of course, there’s iMessage.
IT’S VERY HARD TO COMPETE WITH CHAT APPS THAT HAVE A BILLION USERS
Kay says that the diversity of Android hardware precludes Google from creating an iMessage-like system that co-opts SMS — not to mention that Allo also needs to work on iOS. Instead, the plan for acquiring users for Allo seems a little, well, unformed. Rather than talk about jump-starting user growth, Fulay emphasized that Google is just focused on making a good app: “The first order of business is just nail the product… make sure we have a product people love.” Kay says that “if you don’t have a great product that users love and are willing to recommend to their friends, then there’s no sense in worrying about distribution.”
I’ll admit that I think Allo looks like a great product (though I wish that it wasn’t strictly phone number-based and mobile-only and therefore tied to to a single phone). But as we’ve watched other messaging platforms achieve billion-user scale, I also think that convincing them to switch is going to be very hard. Talking to Google in a chat app looks pretty great, but who you really want to talk to are your friends. Right now, they’re using something else.
Google can’t undo the mistakes it made with Hangouts over the past three years, it can only move forward with a new (and better) app. Allo is definitely both of those things, but it will need to be even more than that to really challenge Facebook and Apple.
Facebook wants you to share more – specifically, more photos and videos. With that in mind, the Wall Street Journal is today reporting that Facebook is working on a dedicated camera app to compete with the likes of Snapchat and Periscope, who are stealing the limelight away from Facebook’s much-touted video platform.
The app would allow users to share photos to Facebook more easily and quickly than is currently possible – it’s easy through Messenger, but sharing to your Timeline is a little more convoluted – plus stream live video with the tap of a button. Live video is of course new for Facebook, having launched on Android in February. It’s pretty obvious Facebook wants to take on Twitter’s Periscope, which is currently the king of live video streaming.
Facebook has had a difficult time regarding cameras on Android. In version 1.9 of its app, Facebook added camera and messenger shortcuts, then revised the icons after complaints that they were too similar to Android’s own icons, then removed the shortcuts altogether less than a fortnight later. It’s probably hoping this time that success is more forthcoming. Time will tell, although with millennials using Facebook less and less, it might prove to be a tough sell.
Twitter is one of the largest social networks out there. Sadly, where you have that much free exchange of dialogue, you also end up with a bunch of people saying and doing some pretty mean and offensive things.Since bullying, mocking, and other forms of harassment don’t always fit in 140 characters, Twitter is now giving users the ability to attach multiple tweets to a single report.
Unlike muting and blocking, reporting is a means of countering abusive behavior, rather than merely tune it out. Twitter says it investigates reports to determine an appropriate response. Attaching multiple tweets gives them more information and provides a better look at the situation. This change doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives people one more way to fight back.