Messaging and video call provider Viber spent 2016 like a young couple renovating an old house. It added a bunch of new features to its service, updated its look, and improved security. It also found a new way to generate ad revenue in the form of public chats.
What it didn’t do was improve its video calling experience.
Now, Viber has operated primarily as a chat service since its launch in 2010, and only added video calling in 2014, but if you’re going to offer the function we think you should give it a little touch-up when you make improvements.
In renovation terms, Viber added a fresh coat of paint and some new curtains to the rest of the house, but just ignored the blandest room in the place. And so Viber ends 2016 as it began it, in fourth position behind Skype, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp on the download charts, and, in our opinion, risking its relevance in the video calling world.
Viber Video Is Just…Bland
Video calling on Viber is functional, we’ll admit that. It works across iOS, Android, and Windows phones, and it can include callers on PC and tablet. It’s easy to use, as it is included in the main app download and launches directly from the phone numbers of you and your contacts.
The audio and visuals are clear enough, and the latter well proportioned, provided you have access to a solid Wi-Fi connection. What it can’t do is group video calling, which isn’t so bad when you consider that other mega popular apps such as WhatsApp and Google Duo can’t do that either. But Skype and Google Hangouts certainly can, and so can some far smaller smartphone-based services.
With the resources of a service that has more than 800 million users worldwide, the option to not include group video calling is clearly a business decision. And it’s in keeping with Viber’s overall video calling ethos, which seems to treat video calling as an add-on to one-on-one messaging and group chat.
The Face and Nothing But the Face
As I mentioned above, the best thing about Viber video calling is that it works. And that’s pretty much the extent of what it seems to set out to achieve.
It looks the way Skype has looked for the better part of a decade. Just a big screen for your companion, with a small screen tucked away in the top corner showing your own face.
There are no shared controls or screen sharing. No custom backgrounds, or even silly avatars and masks. No zoom or image control. And if your connection isn’t humming along at optimum speed, the whole conversation quickly falls into lags, pixelation, and the dreaded green screen. You can switch between the cameras on your phone easily, if that’s a consolation.
Until Viber starts showing an interest in making video calling a major feature, it is best to think of the app as a chat service that will allow you to quickly jump to live face-to-face conversation if the current topic makes it necessary.
Viber Chat Still a Leader, and Still Free
Those 2016 renovations of the chat service I mentioned earlier began with a softer look, exemplified by the switch to a pastel version of the company’s trademark purple tones.
However, the most important new feature is improved chat security. While Viber was initially criticized for not revealing the blueprints of its new end-to-end encryption when it was announced in mid-2016 (and for doing the job in-house, rather than courting an expert outside source) it has since laid things bare, and the result is security that should put even nervous users at ease.
In addition, Viber introduced soft-sell advertising in the form of public accounts, which let users live chat a number of celebrities and organizations, such as Huffington Post, Mashable, BBC, and Justin Bieber.
It’s an innovative approach to monetizing a free service, and less intrusive than the ads and pushy, buy-now chat sticker packs that have dominated Viber so far.
All of which underlines Viber’s true calling as a messaging service, not a video chat platform. Perhaps one day it’ll turn its attention to renovating the video call function. Until then, we’ll choose to stick with what Viber does best–sending messages and silly stickers to our friends.