Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Android VoIP app Viber adds eye candy, forgets function

Viber vs. Skype

VoIP and chat app Viber tries to push Skype out of the way. They're still a million miles away from there, because even my 76 year old aunt knows how to Skype whereas Viber users are few and far between.

But Skype is going downhill now that its Android app is infected with ads, lost its tabs, and won't let you switch off its annoying startup and shutdown noises. Leave it to Microsoft to shoot themselves in the ass. Remember Hotmail? Know anyone who uses Windows Phone?

Viber calls sound as good as VoIP on CSipSimple as long as both ends of the line have a speedy internet connection. If one party switches to 3G it sounds terrible real quick, though. Distortion, echo, and a lot of other unwanted sound effects that make my girlfriend sound like Darth Vader and reminds me of Skype. Viber could use a good low bandwidth codec for when one end of the conversation is on a slow mobile data connection, because its current low bandwidth codec doesn't do the job.

Eye candy added, off switch left out

The latest couple of Viber updates add group messaging, eye candy (custom background, contact pictures), bug fixes, and the time stamp in chats now appears on all messages.

Unfortunately Viber keeps refusing to add an off switch that truly switches off the app. You can exit Viber, but its Cloud To Device Messaging service keeps running. Without countermeasures you'll still receive Viber calls when you don't want them, like when roaming abroad on an expensive international data connection. Its autostart function doesn't come with a toggle either, so Viber starts on boot whether you want it or not unless you control it with an autostart manager like Gemini App Manager. The only way to silence Viber is by pulling your entire phone offline, toggling Viber internet permissions with firewalls like DroidWall, LBE Privacy Guard, and avast, or freezing and unfreezing Viber with apps like App Quarantine. These workarounds work, but wouldn't it be a lot better if Viber would let us use the app the way we want to without having to open a hatful of tricks?

Missing basics

Viber doesn't do any call or message filtering. Anyone who's got your phone number can contact you on Viber without any way to block the unwanted.

It won't let you set your own ringtones and message sounds either. You're stuck with the sounds that come with Viber, and there's no way to receive Viber messages silently.

There's no public API for Viber yet. This means that other apps can't tap into Vibers network, so Viber makes the problem of chat and VoIP fragmentation worse. One app for SIP, one app for Skype, one app for Viber, no app for all. Nimbuzz and fring tried to fight the need for a homescreen full of chat and VoIP apps, but the stubborn makers of Viber and Skype turned back the clock.

SMS alert

Viber captures incoming SMSs. It needs to do this once to receive the activation SMS (similar to apps like WhatsApp), but Viber keeps doing so when it no longer needs to. If you use the anti-theft feature of avast (or any other SMS-based remote locate/wipe app) this can spell trouble, and avast lists Viber as a threat to its anti-theft function. Viber may fix this issue by leaving your SMSs alone, or they may ignore it in the same way they ignore the requests for an off switch that works. Time will tell.

Viber alternatives

Viber works on Android, iPhone, and PCs that run Windows. No Linux, no Mac, no Blackberry, and it's not compatible with the hundreds of millions of Symbian phones that may be outdated but will keep running for the next couple of years.

CSipSimple is my choice for VoIP calls using the standard SIP method. Skype is still unavoidable because of the number of people that use it. Skype doesn't use your phone number as a user name, but this has the advantage that you can make throwaway Skype accounts for people that you don't trust with your phone number. Vonage seems to be Vibers main competitor. Unlike Viber, it comes with an off switch that works. Vonage doesn't have many users yet, so spread the word. For text messaging, WhatsApp and imo beat Viber hands down.

Viber Media, Inc.
Viber (Google Play)

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