CounterPath's Bria promises mobile VoIP for Android devices, but between interfaces glitches and apparent fragmentation in the Android world, delivers a pretty poor experience.
While VoIP over Wi-Fi is no longer leading edge, VoWi-Fi on a mobile phone is still pushing the envelope a little - VoIP over 3G even more so.
That CounterPath, maker of some of the most popular softphones, recently jumped into mobile VoIP with both feet is a sign the market is maturing. (A softphone is a program that turns a computing device into a phone so it can work with a VoIP service.) But as we discovered, the market may not be fully mature yet.
CounterPath launched an iPhone version of its Bria softphone in the summer, and last month added Bria Android Edition ($7.99). According to some company literature, the new product works with any device running Android 2.1 or higher. CounterPath has also published a list of compatible devices.
I tested Android Edition initially on a Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant smartphone, part of a line that Samsung debuted in mid-July and sold a million of by late August -- and one that appears on CounterPath's list of compatible devices. Vibrant can now run under Android 2.2, but at the time of testing was running Android 2.1. Subsequently I tried it on a Motorola phone, the Milestone, a variant of the Droid product -- also on the list -- which is sold through Canada's Bell Mobility. It runs Android 2.1. Late in the process, I also tested it on the brand new ViewSonic ViewPad 7, a 7-inch-screen tablet computer.
While there were some positives in what I saw, the testing suggests this product needs work. The Bria client did not function satisfactorily on any of these devices.
In fairness, the problem may be as much the fragmentation of the Android universe, with different variants of the operating system running on different hardware platforms creating an almost impossible situation for app developers.
CounterPath, to its credit, is not denying there are problems on some hardware platforms, and is promising solutions. It also says the product definitely works as advertised on some devices.
Getting started with Bria Android Edition
Customers can buy Bria Android Edition by surfing to the CounterPath website or going to the Android Market on their phone. Either way, you tap a link to download the program -- I tapped a link in an email from CounterPath that did the same thing -- and then tap the program icon to install it.
The client software installed quickly enough, but after I'd entered the license key, and it accepted the key, it told me it was still waiting for a server response. We waited together for a few minutes, with the Vibrant annoyingly timing out and turning off its screen every few minutes and having to be turned back on again. Finally, I gave up and tapped "cancel" -- and only then discovered that underneath the waiting-for-server-response message was the configuration dialog for Bria where you enter details about your VoIP service.
Setting up Bria Android Edition
The configuration dialog is simple enough: a list of identification/setup items - display name, user name, password, domain, outgoing proxy, authentication name, voice mail, etc. - with a right-arrow link beside each. Tap the link and the empty field and onscreen keyboard appear. After you enter the value, it appears under the field name.
I set up Bria Android Edition to work with an existing Junction Networks OnSIP hosted PBX. OnSIP is a very good small business (or small office) PBX solution that in earlier testing using the Windows desktop Bria client delivered generally excellent call quality.
Passwords are the trickiest part of setting up a SIP account on a mobile phone. The assigned password in this case was 12 characters and used numbers and upper and lower case letters. Entering it on the Vibrant's onscreen keyboard was slightly tedious.
At the end of all the input, you click the login button. The first time I did this -- with breath held -- I received a message saying 'STUN Error' and something to the effect that the phone would automatically try to log in again. It may have tried, but it was only after I tapped the login button again that it successfully logged in to the OnSIP PBX on the second try and displayed the main Bria interface.
The interface is impressively simple. Four icons across the top: Phone, Call Log, Contacts and More. Directly below that row is the phone number field where the digits you dial on the onscreen keypad appear. Below that: the keypad with number buttons big enough even for the fat fingered. At the very bottom is another row of three function buttons: conversation recording, Send/Call and backspace.
The Contacts button takes you to a list of contacts stored with your Google account (if any) or that you've added manually. The More button pops up a menu that gives access to Settings, Help and more. The Android Back button (a multi-purpose hardware button on the phone) backs you out of menus.
Using Bria Android Edition
The more serious problems with Bria on this device surfaced on the first call. While call quality at my end was reasonably good, for the person at the other end, the audio volume was unbearably loud and distorted, and the person's own voice echoed back to him so loudly and consistently that conversation was impossible. (This was despite "echo cancellation" being turned on in the softphone settings.)
In subsequent test calls, others reported the same symptoms.
In my first conversations with CounterPath about the problem, a tech support engineer said this was a known problem affecting at least some, possibly many devices, including most if not all Samsung phones and at least one of the other devices included in CounterPath's published list of compatible devices, the HTC Evo.
In subsequent conversations with CounterPath, the company claimed the problem was mainly with Samsung models and that it had informed Samsung, which was working on a solution. At the time of writing, Samsung had yet to corroborate this.
Testing of Bria Android Edition on the second phone, the Motorola Milestone, was even more short-lived. The Milestone is supposedly identical to the Motorola Droid, except with a different cellular radio. The Droid (but not the Milestone) appears in CounterPath's published list of compatible devices.
While the Samsung phone allowed us to buy the product from the Android Market directly on the phone, on the Milestone, a search for Bria in the Market turned up nothing. CounterPath could not explain this, but said it had noted the same problem with some other devices.
It recommended using one of several third-party apps for installing "non-Market" products and sent me the Bria installer in an email. I tried two different installers recommended by CounterPath. With both tapping the installer generated a "Parse Error" and the app would not install.
I was able to install other non-Market apps using these third-party installers, however, so the problem was at least in part with the CounterPath software.
Finally, just as I was finishing the review, I received the ViewSonic ViewPad 7. The Bria softphone installed fine on this device, but in brief testing, it performed not much better than on the Samsung smartphone.
There was latency (which could be OnSIP rather than the CounterPath software) and echo on all calls. Conversation was virtually impossible.
Not ready for prime time
Where does this leave us? Bria Android Edition is clearly not quite ready for prime time. But is this a problem with CounterPath, the devices or with Android? Probably all of the above to one degree or another.
My instinct, given CounterPath's otherwise sterling reputation, is to put more of the blame on Android. On the other hand, the appearance on the company's published list of supposedly compatible devices on which the product clearly doesn't work suggests insufficient testing.
It's also worth noting that CounterPath insists the product works fine with at least one device, the HTC Desire. And it's talking hopefully about resolutions to the problems by mid-January. Stay tuned.
We'll publish an follow-up if there is anything further to report. Bria Android Edition, despite these problems, is an important product, simply because Bria is the preferred softphone for many VoIP providers.