Get the best deals with Viber, WhatsApp, PingChat! and Skype while keeping your data private

With the iPhone currently being sold in 88 countries all with their different carriers, one of the first things customers need to choose is a calling plan. Mobile operators tend to sell minute bundles but depending on the contract, some might be charge for the cellular data used or even charging calls by the minute. Choosing the right option for you can be daunting as every alternative is a universe on its own with its own small print. But don't worry. There are apps out there that can help to save you money. 


One of the questions I get asked more often is about apps that complement your calling plan. I make international calls on a daily basis to catch up with relatives and friends living abroad. As a seasoned Skype user, I have always used the service to call foreign mobile and fixed line numbers to save some money. However, new alternatives have arrived to the App Store that can help you to save even more. 


Let's get texting for free


The first thing iPhone switchers coming from a Blackberry smartphone will miss will be the free messenger service BBM. The iPhone does not have any native free solution, all you get is the standard SMS app, which sends paid messages to your contacts. PingChat! (formerly called Ping!) and WhatsApp fill in the gap. They both allow users to exchange multimedia messages for free across iOS, Blackberry and Android devices. You just need to download the app, create an account and add your friends with their username to start texting for free. The catch is that these apps use your 3G/EDGE to send and receive information, which means that if you are on a limited data plan, you might want to monitor your usage. Using Wi-Fi, it will cost you nothing. 

Using either PingChat! or WhatsApp is really useful for have quick chit-chats with other users and it can represent a big saving compared with sending SMS and MMS abroad. They both use push notifications, so the actual user experience is still there: every time someone texts you, you will see an alert on the screen and a count badge in the app's icon. 


So far so good, but just like some other users, I have my concerns about the registration process in PingChat! and the use of my contact's data with WhatsApp. If you don't want a third party app picking up your contact's details to see who is using the service, I recommend PingChat!, where you only have to share a nickname. 
"We do not use your phone number or email address or other personally identifiable information to send commercial or marketing messages without your consent or except as part of a specific program or feature for which you will have the ability to opt-in or opt-out. We may, however, use your email address without further consent for non-marketing or administrative purposes (such as notifying you of major WhatsApp Site or WhatsApp Service changes or for customer service purposes)." from WhatsApp Privacy Notice 

PingChat [iTunes Link] - Good for group texting. Keeps your mobile number private.

WhatsApp [iTunes Link] - Identifies quickly who's got the app installed from your contact list.


I personally like PingChat! better as it has been around for longer and in my case I have more contacts using this than WhatsApp. They equally reliable, although some networks and home routers might have the ports closed. 


Free voice calls? Where's the catch? 


While I have been using Skype since it first arrived to the App Store, we can't deny that the promise of free calls is appealing to everyone. The Skype app as it is is an excellent companion to the desktop app that you might have used before for cheap voice calls, video conference and chatting. I still have struggled to cope with some of the earlier issues, such as Skype keeping logged on for the whole day and receiving chat messages from my contacts as push notifications. The addition of videocalls over 3G makes it a very strong contender for Face Time and the option to call international numbers for a small fee, made me stick to it.  

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to Viber, an app which allows you to call other users for free. Some of my friends quickly installed it and well, it worked! But what is the difference with Skype? When you install Viber you allow the app to go through your contact list stored on your iPhone for the app to see you is already using it. Just like with WhatsApp, you are identified by your mobile number and not with an username. The app pulls this info and displays who is using Viber in a neat way, but I still had a lot of reservations about it. 


I was happy to see that Liad Agmon blogged about his reasons not to use Viber and that the company CEO, Talmon Marco, had to join the conversation to make things clear. In a comment on that blog post, he explains that while Viber copies your address book names and mobile numbers and keeps it on the company's servers, it promises to use it just to tell you when your friends are online, indicate who is using Viber and display the contact name in the push notifications. 
"The copy of your address book (names and phones) is stored on a live database. This database does not have a "historical backup". If you delete the address book from our servers (more about this below), it will be deleted instantly and permanently." from Viber's Privacy Policy

The company says that they won't sell your info to anybody and that they have enough funding to make Viber calls for free without using any ads. Viber has decided to keep all your call history information indefinitely, while Skype is not clear about it and moil operators in Europe do so for 36 months maximum. It's fair to say that it is a new company and needs some time to fine tune everything. However, the fact that they had to change their privacy policy so fast and deployed a group of people to explain the situation, says a lot about them and their reputation. iOS users know about the huge opportunities for companies doing business in the AppStore and offering something for free with no apparent compensation, is going to look very conspicuous.

Viber [iTunes Link] - Quick setup, privacy concerns over agenda backup on the company's servers.
Skype [iTunes Link] - Huge user base, able to call any number (paying), video calls.


Let's admit it, you get what you pay for. I'm currently using both Skype and Viber for different needs. I have noticed that older iPhone users are more comfortable with Viber, as you don't need to wait for the app to sign in and finding your contacts is plain easy. Despite the criticisms, I found the call quality quite decent although I experienced frequent call drops. I'm using Skype to call mobile phones, fixed line numbers as well as other Skype users who are online. These guys have my PayPal account but have a good track as a respectable and innovative company.