Jorge Serna

@jorge.serna

Google Duo puts the last nail in ViLTE’s coffin

Duo being natively integrated into the phone dialer only means operator-based personal communication services will fade out faster

Google has announced this week that Duo, their video calling application, will get a deeper integration into their native dialer for Android phones, so that users will be able to place video calls with it and also from the native Contacts and Messages apps.

This is part of a complex strategy in which Google is trying to leverage their leading position in the mobile operating system market to try to get into the Personal Communications space.

And while some operators are partnering with Google in this strategy, trying to capture something from Google’s eventual success, the reality is that they are only a means to an end.

Google position in Social Communications

Android is clearly leading the mobile operating system penetration worldwide, with some analysis putting it well over 80%.

But that success comes with a caveat in the context of Social Communications, because even if they are Android users, people will fundamentally use a Facebook property (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram) to communicate with each other, or in some cases other products like SnapChat or HouseParty. There are no strong Google products in this space.

This is a risk for Google, because they are missing the opportunity of participating in the expected benefits of conversational eCommerce — modeled after WeChat’s success in China, and with players like WhatsApp, Apple or Amazon moving seriously into it.

For a company basing its revenue in advertising, which is fundamentally a way for companies to reach an audience, being left out of this new opportunity is a big concern.

The leverage of Android

Of course Google is trying to get there. And that is why they announced in May 2016 that they were launching Allo and Duo, a pair of applications focused respectively on messaging and video communication.

But the problem with trying to get into the communications space is to bring a proposition which is compelling enough to create the network effects that bring users in. Because, if a new messaging application does not bring a really differential value (and that is not simple having more “features”) it is impossible that users will try to push their existing social circle to move into the new app. While numbers are still growing, the 100 million downloads announced for Duo are far behind the billion daily active users for WhatsApp, which incidentally also offers video calls (and bear in mind that downloads and daily active user are very different metrics, so we are not simply considering a x10 factor here).

So probably this is why Google is thinking “why don’t we leverage our ownership of the Android platform to scale up our communication apps?”. Which sounds like a really good strategy, one in which Apple has been quite successful with its own iMessage.

But there is a problem here: while Google owns Android, they do not really *own* the native experience for communication in the devices; device manufacturers do. This is why a Samsung, LG or Huawei phone with the same Android version actually have different applications for the SMS messaging and for making calls. And this is also why in Google’s announcement it is clear that the support for Duo integration will not be widespread:

“We’re starting to roll out integrated video calling to first-generation Pixel, Android One, and Nexus devices, and it will also be available on Pixel 2 phones. We’re working with our carrier and device partners to bring this experience to more Android devices over time.”

Working with the Industry

Google is actually trying to get control of those important apps: the Contacts, Phone and Messages native capabilities in Android smartphones. Their initial approach for this has been adding support for RCS to their Messages app.

RCS, the “Rich Communication Services” standard, is an industry initiative that goes back to 2007 (before there was an AppStore for iPhone!), which has many times been dubbed the “operator’s WhatsApp” (even if it started BEFORE WhatsApp launched), and that has had lots of iterations over these last 10 years. But, as can be guessed given this timeline and the lack of current relevance, its roll out has been a real struggle for operators. I could write a LONG post about that, maybe another time.

Google hoped that, by helping the industry to push out a service that operators have been unable to do by themselves in almost a decade, they could recapture the ownership of the messaging app in the phones, and eventually recover Android control. This is not a new play for Google. They also embraced an industry initiative in the past that eventually got them control of an important piece of the market. The initiative was called Open Handset Alliance, and Google joined it and brought in an interesting asset they had just acquired: it was called ‘Android’.

But this time that approach is not really working, or at least not at the speed Google expected. Yes, from time to time Google publishes some note about new carriers launching RCS (last time I’m aware of 6 months ago). But you realize that it is stalling when you see that there has been no new Google references to RCS for a while, not in their Duo announcements, not in their Android Oreo launch, not even in their latest I/O conference, which would be the perfect place to create an ecosystem of developers creating bots and services on top of their expected Messaging as a Service (MAAP) platform. As Dean Bubley would put it — RCS is still a zombie.

So they are trying something slightly different with Duo.

Duo as the ViLTE killer

An interesting detail in the Duo blog post is this one:

ViLTE is “Video over LTE”, the standard service for operators providing video calls in cellular networks. And to date, ViLTE is showing a lack of success that makes RCS look like a big hit. According to the latest GSA map, there are less than 10 countries in the world with ViLTE roll-outs, and that does not even reflect any kind of market traction for its use. Not only there is only a handful of operators that do support ViLTE, but they only do in a limited set of devices, with the iPhone not supporting it at all (just like it does not support RCS).

Still, when you read Google’s note, it feels like they are playing nice with the operator’s standard, right? Because they say they are giving priority to ViLTE, so that if operators get manufacturers to install this application, the standard will work before Google’s Duo.

But the truth is it will not, because for ViLTE to take precedence BOTH users must have ViLTE available in the time of the call, which requires:

  • Both being in a ViLTE enabled operator. That is unlikely even in countries with a ViLTE roll-out, because currently no more than a single operator per country has ever launched ViLTE.
  • AND both having a ViLTE enabled handset. Which, according to the GSA report from August this year, “Only one identified device, a Samsung phone, supports ViLTE technology”.
  • AND both having the handset supported by the operator network, which in most cases requires it having been acquired through the operator channel (operators are trying to change this, but it will take time).
  • AND both being in LTE coverage

While to use Duo the only requirement is both having Duo installed… and even if the callee does not have Duo installed, they can send a nice invitation via App preview messages. Beyond that, an Android Duo user can actually reach an iPhone user, because there is an iOS Duo app.

There is no real chance that this ‘ViLTE fall-back’ will happen in practice, this is just Google providing a native integration for Duo.

By getting this apparently operator-friendly behavior, what Google is actually driving is acquisition for its Duo platform, turning it into the FaceTime equivalent for the Android platform. And since this functionality is part of the native Phone app, it is justified for Duo to become part of the core Android services and get preinstalled and automatically registered with any new smartphone… just like Apple does with FaceTime and iMessage.

And by becoming a de facto standard in Android phone, there would be no reason to use ViLTE, and definitely for operators there will be no incentive to roll out a service that users do not need. Which kills ViLTE before it was even properly born.

Messaging comes next

Could Google do the same for Allo, their messaging solution? I expect so, since Allo and Duo are looking to be further integrated, and since Duo is already integrating into the native messaging app. I think this points to eventually Allo being more closely related to the Messages app too.

Google could position this in an operator-friendly way too:

we will ‘fall-back’ to Allo in the Messages app only when both parties in a text conversation do not support RCS”.

Again, considering RCS roll-out status, lack of support in iPhone and Android’s app preview messages, this would mean that ‘fall-back’ will not be a corner case but the most usual use case to drive Allo acquisition.

It would *look* operator-friendly, and it probably will be, because in the end it will help operators to stop wasting more time with RCS.

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