Aug 18, 2016

Google Duo: Beaten into blandness by past failures?

Google is fast losing its grip on the internet through its inability to crack the alternative universes of social media and communication apps. Is Duo’s simple, fragmented premise a result of these past failures? Can it succeed?

BYTyagarajan S

Google has a long list of failed social products from Buzz to Talk to Google+. Hangouts, not yet deemed a failure officially, didn’t take the market by storm either. Into this soup comes their latest product, Google Duo – a one-on-one video calling application.
Google Duo is a video-chat app so simple that labelling it a social app is a stretch. It is like an extension of the traditional caller app in stock-android at best. Sure, it promises to be reliable when switching between wifi and cellular network. It presents a clean and uncomplicated interface. It offers one little fancy feature, called ‘Knock Knock’, that displays a preview of the video stream from the caller side before picking up the call.
But at its core it does one-on-one video chat and nothing else. Now, go download an app to do just that.
Duo’s entry feels anti-climactic. Skype, after all, did it more than a decade back. Apple’s Facetime did it more than six years back. The world since then has had a revolution of chat-apps.

When Google puts out a new product, you expect it to solve an unsolved problem, or completely rethink how something’s done. Duo is none of that. It is, at best, a cleaner version of existing products with a better interface and improved robustness.

Does Duo show the company is losing its grip on the internet?

More than 2.5 billion people use chat apps today. The top four communication apps have more monthly active users (MAU) worldwide than the top four social networks. Millions of terabytes of data pass through these apps in increasingly sophisticated forms ranging from emoji to gifs to videos. Real-time video is fast becoming the de-facto means of communication. And most of this is happening on these new platforms.
Yet, these are walled gardens Google is not allowed into. It is no longer the chief gatekeeper to all customer data. It is neither the only means for advertisers to reach consumers nor is it the only algorithm determining what and who gets found and who doesn’t. Inside these walled gardens, people share their lives, create content and do other immeasurably valuable things that Google has no access to. A new cool-club has formed and Google has been left out of it.
And commerce is moving to this club. Brands interact with consumers in myriad ways outside the traditional e-commerce platforms and their websites. In fact, the power of individual websites to host content, build awareness and generally handhold customers towards purchase has diminished significantly. As both sellers and customers get more comfortable with these emerging ways of communicating with each other, ads and purchases are increasingly moving into these clubs.
It’s not for lack of trying on Google’s part, though. Its path since 2003 is littered with social and interaction apps that have fallen dead or faded away to obscurity along the way: Orkut, Talk, Latitude, Google Reader (although why it was discontinued is anyone’s guess), Google Friend Connect, Wave, Buzz and Hangouts. Building a powerful social interaction platform is still the big riddle it hasn’t solved.
It makes you wonder if this nervousness is reflected in its latest offering. Are past social product failures breeding timidity?

Throw them around and see what sticks

One look at Google’s product offering and the muddled thinking becomes apparent. With the launch of Duo and the upcoming launch of Allo, Google will have four different apps serving niche communication needs (SMS through Messenger, Voice and group video chat through Hangouts, one-on-one video calling through Duo and chat with bots through Allo). Sure, Allo and Duo are built in a radically new direction (with machine learning roots) but the question remains: Does this fragmented approach worsen the customer experience?
True power lies in integration and tie-ins to a larger ecosystem. This is the reason Facebook goes after building the market for its Messenger aggressively even after acquiring WhatsApp. The extremely successful WhatsApp is a walled garden. It can be monetized but it doesn’t feed into or gain from everything else that Facebook has built. But the homegrown Messenger, part of the Facebook joint family, will drive long term success for the entire platform.
Besides, consumers are now getting pulled in a hundred different directions. A typical user switches constantly between a handful of social media apps and a few chat applications on top of that. It is an increasingly schizophrenic existence with overlapping sets of people and sharing different forms of media across these closed groups. At some point, madness is likely to ensue. Fragmentation will become a liability and consolidation will be preferred.
Duo image final
In this environment, Google has the platform and scope to offer a unified social experience that removes all this clutter. But they’ve chosen the building-blocks approach. It is understandable that another failed mega-product in this space may be one too many and diversification offers more fronts to attack and fail individually. But, does it offer enough value to wrest success from incumbents?

Could Android save the day?

Close to 80% of the world’s smartphones run on the Android operating system. The majority of the next hundred million smartphone users are likely to use Android. If Google has its way, Android (or a variant that integrates Android and Chromium) could be powering self-driving cars and smart homes. It does appear that Android has won (momentarily) the battle for a software platform to power smart worlds of the future. One would think this provides Google the perfect opportunity to tie together all its offerings into a seamless experience. But it is not so easy.
The Android ecosystem itself struggles with fragmentation. The platform’s openness, which allowed it to become the most pervasive mobile OS, also became its curse. Between the various OEM skins, unnecessary app bundling and mangling of the original Android UI (hello, Samsung), there isn’t a unifying Android experience. Less than one-fifth of all Android phones run the latest version at any given point. Developers work through this nightmare of fragmentation and often compromise user experience, security and speed of deployment.

Unless the android platform gets to some semblance of standardization, the power of Google to use it to bring all of its disparate applications to work together is diminished.

The earnest trier that it is, Google is once again attempting varied strategies: Creating a standardized material design rule book, building its own hardware (Nexus) and pushing for more stock-android based phones through low-cost OEM partnerships. Yet, fragmentation is an infection that is continuing to eat away at Android.
Today, Duo stands alone in a crowded market trying to open up a challenging frontier for Google. Its simplicity and performance could still make it a winner in specific markets. Millions will immediately access it if it comes bundled in the Android OS. Its ability to work well on low-cost smartphones and low-bandwidth, flaky network environments will determine success in places like India.
However, it is yet another app that eats up valuable phone storage space and offers a niche, video-calling functionality that does not allow for any other form of interaction. If it does win, it could become as ubiquitous as pressing the call button on your phone. Will it win or will it join its bigger, bolder cousins in Google’s social garage to collect dust? We won’t have to wait long to find out.

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Tyagarajan S is a writer of FactorDaily.