Viber, the messaging app owned by Rakuten that a year ago said it had 1 billion registered users, has added another feature in its longer-term efforts to add more stickiness to its service, while also bringing in a little more revenue to the business: users now have the option of subscribing to have “local numbers” that can receive phone calls and SMS messages as if those calls and messages are being sent to mobile numbers in specific regions.
Viber Local Number, as the service is called, is available to anyone globally, but for now the numbers you can register are in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, with more countries getting added soon. All area codes in the U.S. will be covered at launch.
Viber said that the first 10,000 people to sign up will be able to pay $1.99 per month indefinitely for the service. Otherwise, it’s being priced at $4.99/month, and according to a FAQ on its site, you pay either by way of Apple’s in-app payments service, Google Play or (if you’re on Android) via a credit card direct with Viber itself. You access the option to get the number by way of the “more” tab on the app.
Viber Local Number will sound fairly familiar to people who have used other messaging apps and VoIP services.
Skype, for one, has offered the option of getting a local number in a specific region, both to make and receive calls, for years. There also have been companies that have stepped into the feature gap between the existence of the capability and Viber yet to launch anything of its own. One that I found offering a local number feature for Viber, Freezvon, has an even wider range of countries listed for local numbers than the three that Viber currently offers.
We’ve asked Viber why it’s taken it so long for it to launch this, and also whether third-party services like these are partners for Viber Local Number, or conversely whether Viber will allow them to continue to operate in competition with its own offering. We will update this post as and when we learn the answers.
As with these other services, Viber Local Number is aimed at business people or others who want to offer customers or partners a local number in a particular region to call them, when they themselves might not be in that region. To note: that use case is only valid in countries where users are not required to show proof of residency before taking numbers.
In another possible application, if you are a person who wants to share a number with people but have that inbound traffic not mix with your other inbound calls, this would be a cheaper and more flexible way of handling that without paying for a fully functional separate phone number. Similarly, those who are living abroad but want to give their family and friends back home a cheaper way to contact them would also be potential users.
“The new Viber Local Number enriches our users in a way that makes Viber the most powerful communication app out there,” says Viber CEO, Djamel Agaoua, in a statement. “We are excited to offer people new ways to be closer and more relevant to what matters and is important to them. From expats who need a local phone number that connects them back home, to global business owners who want overseas clients to feel they are located nearby, this new feature gives them a local presence no matter where they are.”
We have confirmed that Viber Local Number currently only works for inbound calls after noticing there is no detail in Viber’s FAQ about pricing for outbound calls.
But, the company already has a service called Viber Out that allows users to make calls from their Viber accounts to numbers outside of Viber itself. Viber Local Number sits within Viber Out as a product, and it seems that this is the main option for now. Viber tells us that it will over time be integrating Viber Local Number calls into the Viber Out feature, so that if you do make calls out, you can associate those with your Viber Local Number.
In earlier years of its life as an “over the top” messaging app, Viber was a close competitor to WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook’s Messenger, Line and others tapping into the smartphone boom with more flexible ways to contact people that transcended stingy SMS allowances with way more features on top of the basic ability to send texts.
When Rakuten acquired Viber for $900 million just weeks before Facebook announced its acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion, the two respectively had 300 million and 450 million monthly active users. Now, WhatsApp and Messenger have well over 2 billion monthly active users combined, while Viber never puts out MAU figures.
Indeed, more recently, Viber has arguably stagnated as a go-to messaging service, overtaken in users and features by its rivals. That the company does not give out updated user numbers doesn’t help its image, either.
But under new CEO Agaoua — an adtech veteran who joined in February 2017 — the company has been working on a number of new efforts around chatbots and other features that tie the app closer with Rakuten’s e-commerce roots and wider footprint of other holdings. In that regard, today’s announcement — given that it’s turning on functionality that arguably Viber should have added years ago — feels like an important move, enabling an essential feature that lays the groundwork for potentially more to come.
Updated with comment from Viber providing more detail on rollout and future plans.