Viber’s Michael Shmilov: ‘The future of comms is in richer apps’

17 Nov 2016

Viber chief operating officer Michael Shmilov. Image: Viber

With its roots in Israel and a Japanese parent company, Viber wants to be more than just an over-the-top communications app. It wants to be the gateway for businesses to interact with more consumers.

With more than 800m unique users, Viber has double the user base of Twitter, and is not too far behind Facebook for mobile engagement.

Viber was initially launched in 2010 by a former CIO from the Israeli army, Talmon Marco, as a direct competitor to Skype.

‘Where Viber is present, many operators see it helping customers migrate towards carrier-billing for data’

Two years ago, Viber was acquired by Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten for $900m.

At a time when over-the-top (OTT) apps like Viber, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are viewed as the enemy by traditional mobile operators anxious not to be seen as “dumb pipes”, COO of Viber, Michael Shmilov, disagrees.

He points out that Viber sees a future in collaborating closer with telcos.

“OTTs need telecoms companies because our networks are based on their networks. We were seen as the enemy, then we were clients and now we are partners.

“In countries where Viber has penetrated the market significantly, we have a good relationship with telecoms companies. We partner around brand co-marketing and help them gain more users by accessing data.

“In fact, where Viber is present, many operators see it helping customers migrate towards carrier-billing for data.”

A brand new future for OTTs

At last week’s Web Summit in Lisbon, Shmilov explained that Viber is a vital tool in helping brands reach new and younger audiences.

The company launched its new Public Accounts services for businesses and brands to engage with their global audience through a richer app interface.

For example, brands and public figures can engage with users through a series of one-on-one chat options or social broadcasting.

Shmilov admits that Viber’s move in the direction of deeper audience engagement is largely influenced by its owner Rakuten, which is taking an innovative approach to e-commerce and ways of deepening relationships with users.

“What I found fascinating about Rakuten is how much it actually empowers smaller businesses to sell online. The company has created an amazing business in Japan and now sees more growth globally. The leadership team is very ambitious and they see beyond the Japanese economy, and see Viber as a way to acquire more customers for the future.”

Shmilov said that it its heart, Viber is a very consumer-driven company and its new push to engage businesses is about the consumer at the end of the day.

“When we first launched Viber, it was all about the calls, and then it was messaging because consumers were literally asking for it.

“Today, people use Viber for calls and messaging in a secure environment.

“But there is also a great opportunity to get consumers to connect with businesses around them.”

With this new approach, Viber is evolving to be more than just communications, but a rich set of apps within in an app.

“We are creating a framework for a lot of innovation opportunities around how you consume news, how you communicate with financial organisations, healthcare and more. There is no limit to how much can happen.”

If anything, Shmilov said, most smartphone users are suffering from app fatigue and in truth, are likely to use no more than four or five apps and websites a day.

“This is a very natural step for us. Because we are among those five or six daily apps.

“We have over 800m unique users and now we need to create the right conditions for the businesses to interact with the users, by making it possible for e-commerce and other financial transactions to happen.”

Smilov added that machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are at the heart of the new Viber.

“Everything we do is based on AI. It is the key to scale and instant response by the business. You have to have automation and this requires connectivity between CRM systems, authentication and overall, enabling an ecosystem between users and businesses with AI in the centre.”

Shmilov concluded that while it is still early days for AI, the speed of uptake of the technology is mesmerising to behold.

“AI enables scale and instant response, but it depends on the quality of the data. The platforms that get that right will have the edge.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years