Viber Bears Down on Skype With New Texting Feature

iPhone (s aapl) VoIP app Viber introduced a new update Thursday that introduces text messaging. The update also introduces some bug fixes and other feature changes, including a redesigned contacts tab and a better calling mechanism. Viber is growing fast (with 10 million downloads since its introduction), and smart updates like this will help ensure it keeps nipping at Skype’s heels.
When we covered Viber at launch, I suggested that it might be able to steal some of Skype’s thunder, and this update doesn’t change that impression. In fact, with free texting to your Viber contacts that displays a pop-up notification on their device even when the app is closed (so long as it isn’t removed from the multitasking bar), and delivery status notification (BBM-style¬†(s rimm)), it’s better positioned to disrupt the iPhone VoIP scene than ever.
Viber also introduced some key usability improvements in this update, including the ability to automatically filter all your Viber-using contacts with one tap, and a redesigned calling mechanism that displays a “Calling” state when you’re first connecting, and a “Ringing” state when your contact’s device is actually in the process of receiving a call. This makes it much easier to tell at a glance the actual status of your call.
I asked Ayelet Noff, Viber’s PR representative about Viber’s plans for the future. The company is looking into supporting video calls, which would really help it compete with Skype, but there’s no specific timeline attached to the introduction of that feature. Viber’s first priority right now is to add additional platforms, including Android (s goog). The ability to connect users across platforms would definitely go a long way toward broadening Viber’s appeal, since it’s impossible to find a group of friends, relatives or business associates who exclusively use iPhones (unless maybe you work at Apple).
Viber is completely free and doesn’t feature any ads, which is good news for users now, but also leaves me feeling the other shoe has to drop sometime. Noff acknowledged that Viber does plan to offer value-add services down the line in exchange for payment, but that first and foremost, the company is most concerned with expanding its network to as many platforms as possible, and to ensuring the basic Viber experience is solid. iPod touch and iPad support, also in the pipeline, are nearing completion.
If you haven’t tried it, Viber’s call quality is excellent. I tested the update with a friend in Montreal just this morning and found voice quality much better even than on my iPhone’s cellular service, and that’s consistently been the case with my Viber use. Plus, it automatically sets itself up using your phone number and your phone’s contact info, so there’s no additional sign-up, buddy list creation or anything else. If Viber keeps delivering at this high level of quality as it grows to other platforms, it’s definitely the VoIP service to watch.