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Google is starting from scratch on messaging to take on Apple and Facebook

Duo, Google’s answer to Apple’s FaceTime, is here.

Duo, Google’s new video chat app

The first thing I see is my face. Crisp in HD, I stare up at myself inside Google’s latest app, Duo, until the person I call takes over the screen, booting my face to a circle in the corner.

There’s a tiny widget to reverse the camera, and a small Settings button. And that’s about it.

Duo, a video chat app that works on iOS and Android — one of two new messaging products that Google heralded in May — is now out.

It’s the latest chapter in Google’s fumbling attempt at messaging. Apple wields messaging to lock customers in. And Facebook and Snapchat are building ever more complex social worlds around messaging.

But Google has never gotten it right. With Duo, Google isn’t throwing the kitchen sink at the problem.

“It’s almost bare-bones, from a feature point of view,” explained Nick Fox, VP of Google’s communications division, which is behind the app. “If there’s anything that’s the North Star, it’s really simplicity.”

That’s odd, because the view from outside the company (and for some inside), Google’s messaging strategy has been anything but simple. With Duo and its imminent smart chat app Allo, Google will have four separate messaging products.

Fox provided the clarity that we sort of had to guess at before.

Google considers its Android text message product to be a “carrier service” — it’s working with telecoms to give Android features on par with iPhones. Hangouts — at one point the vehicle for Google to compete with Facebook on messaging — is now more of a “productivity and enterprise” service, Fox said. (The company has yet to fully implement that shift.)

Google is starting over on the consumer front.

But with two — not one. Facebook has put video and botchat and loads more into Messenger, its homegrown behemoth. Why didn’t Google meld its two do-over apps together?

“We thought about that. We thought about that long and hard,” Fox replied.

“Apps tend to do best when they’re super focused. But it’s harder for an app to do well if it tries to do everything, and does none of those things really well,” he said. “The idea is focus — do one thing very well. How it evolves over time, you know, we’ll see.”

The one thing Duo does — make video calls, like Apple’s FaceTime, but on more than just iPhones — it does well. If you take a call with a Wi-Fi connection, but step out of it, the app alerts you and adjusts the pixels without a noticeable jump.

In a way, Duo borrows from Snapchat. The front-facing camera is the pillar of the app.

But unlike Snapchat, Duo has no extra social bells and whistles, or even some of Google’s trademark intelligence.

I asked Fox if that would change. “We have no plans to evolve it in other directions,” he said. “We think this will work. You never know.”

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