Viber's take on Whatsapp and other iPhone instant messengers

Viber [iTunes Link], the iPhone app that allows users to make free VOIP calls, has launched a new version with a new messaging feature. For some time now, iPhone and iPod Touch users could use messaging apps similar to Blackberry's popular instant messenger: iOS apps such as Whatsapp, Textplus or PingChat (more on them here) offer free texts between users and keep dominating the App Store's social networking charts. With most mobile operators charging ridiculous fees for international SMS in particular, installing one of these options is a no brainer.

The new v2.0 includes a Messages tab where you can send and receive text messages from other Viber users. The app runs in the background and uses push notifications to alert you of new messages, so it's very straightforward to use. The update includes some small improvements such as showing busy contacts instead of just dropping a Viber call when you receive a proper GSM one.  

There are some UI changes like the ability to sort contacts now that the Favorites button has disappeared. Just like in Apple's SMS Messages app, there is no way to customize colours or themes, and to be honest, it doesn't look that pretty. From what I've experienced, it seems that the network reception indicator is gone, something that was completely misleading since I never understood why my home Wi-Fi offered poor reception. 

Privacy and security issues

Since its launch last December, Viber's user base has grown to 10 million users, which demonstrates that you and I are not the only cheapskates with an iPhone. With the new update allowing users to text each other, some of my contacts have joined the crew. How do I know? Because you don't need to add new contacts, they just appear. Unlike alternatives such as Skype, Viber doesn't rely on usernames. Instead, it identifies every user with their mobile number. The key difference is that Viber has access to your iPhone's Contacts and can tell you when one of your friends installs the app. 

New option is now available which allows you to deactivate your Viber account, so you can easily reactivate Viber with a new phone number. Find this option under the 'More' menu.  

This has obvious consequences, since many users will feel uncomfortable knowing that a pretty much unknown company offering something for free has free access to this valuable information. Although the company's privacy policy promises not to sell this data stored in their secure servers, I have to question the lack of encryption sending all your contact details and text messages to other users. The last update nuclides a handy button to delete your account and associated data if you decide to stop the service. Is this enough?