Viber looks to challenge Skype with backing from Japanese internet giant

Let's face it: The tech industry is starting to get used to big-name companies acquiring young, relatively successful startups. To wit, such was the case for Viber, a Tel Aviv-based service that lets you use an app to communicate through phone calls and instant messages. Viber's acquisition by Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce and internet giant, came after the platform welcomed more than 300 million users worldwide since 2010, making it one of the most popular applications across iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. That growth, along with its flourishing appeal, have made Viber a real threat to services like Skype -- though, on the messaging front, it is still trying to catch up to WhatsApp, which is at 500 million active users and counting. But despite all of this, Viber still wants to keep growing, and it plans to use Rakuten's resources to help it get to where it wants to be.

"We continue to have fun, develop our product and introduce new and exciting updates."

Viber's CEO Talmon Marco told me that life at his company hasn't changed since joining the Rakuten family: "We operate the same way [we] did before. This means we continue to have fun, develop our product and introduce new and exciting updates." And keeping the Viber apps full of useful features is something that's very important to Marco, which is why they're constantly being updated on every platform. For its part, Rakuten isn't new to the acquisition game: Back in 2012, the company completed its purchase of Kobo's e-reading business. In a recent interview with Re/code, Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten's co-founder and CEO, said spending $900 million on Viber was a "no-brainer," citing the popularity of similar services as the driving force behind the acquisition.


To outsiders, it wasn't easy to pinpoint why Rakuten would want to own Viber. However, Marco thinks this is a perfect match. "We believe mobile messaging apps like Viber are rapidly becoming the communication method of choice for most people. Both Rakuten and Viber felt user experience on many of Rakuten's services could become better once you let people communicate with them via Viber," Marco said. But as to which Rakuten services he's referring to, he didn't specify. Still, even with any future integration with products from its parent company, Viber will "continue to operate independently [from] Rakuten, but with extensive cooperation."

"Tapping into Rakuten's resources and know-how should help us accelerate our growth in the US and elsewhere."

Marco also told Engadget that one of the main goals for Viber going forward is to keep expanding in the US. As popular as the app is outside of the States, Viber said the US remains its biggest market. With Rakuten on its side, Marco said Viber will have to make the most of the opportunity. "Tapping into Rakuten's resources and know-how should help us accelerate our growth in the US and elsewhere," he added. And if Rakuten hadn't come into the picture, the additional resources could have come from elsewhere; Marco said that there was interest from other companies, but didn't share the names of any of them.

Of course, as has happened on numerous occasions with these types of services, not everything has gone smoothly for Viber. In 2013, the service caught a lot of heat for an exploit that allowed hackers to bypass the Android lockscreen, and while Viber was quick to react, users weren't too happy that this happened in the first place. But Marco told me user privacy and security are his company's number one priority. "After all, we ourselves use the product constantly and care about our own privacy. Viber has never experienced a breach of user data or our production system," he said. "Multiple third-party tests have demonstrated our top-notch attention to security and we continue to work hard [for] things to stay this way."

Marco feels that combining Viber's solid calling and messaging features with the ability to keep your data secure is a recipe for success. Ultimately, as he's told us in the past, the goal is to bring the best talking and chatting experience to you, regardless of which operating system you are using. But will this be enough for you to pick it over a big player like Skype? Well, that call is for you to make.

[Image credits: Flickr, Sam Azgor; Getty Images]