CounterPath Upgrades its Free VoIP Softphone, X-Lite

Since its founding in 2002, Vancouver-based CounterPath has been delivering a range of desktop and mobile VoIP software solutions. With its latest release, the company is offering a major upgrade to its free softphone X-Lite, which it hopes will move users to eventual adoption of its enterprise softphone, Bria. (See our review of Bria 3.0 here.)

X-Lite 4.0 doesn’t have many of the enterprise features that make Bria a powerful tool, features such as bridge line appearance, corporate directory, log-in options, improved security options, and auto answer.

But X-Lite 4.0 does have Bria’s look and feel, a design based more on the contact center concept than on the traditional dial pad interface. This could make for a smoother transition for those who decide to upgrade to the paid product. Aimed at service providers and enterprise customers, Bria starts at $49.95 for a single copy. CounterPath claims some 130,000 new users a month.

The changes in X-Lite from 3.0 to 4.0 mirror changes taking place in Bria, which was first released in 2007, supplanting the earlier eyeBeam as the company’s flagship product.

The big change from eyeBeam to Bria was a shift from a keypad-driven interface to a contact-driven experience. With an interface focused on the address book, Bria allows users to manage calls, IMs, and other media more effectively that did its predecessor.

X-Lite 4.0 takes the same contact-centric approach. In fact, savvy users need not see the key pad at all. While the keypad can be made visible, to achieve a more traditional phone look, it also can hidden for those who wish to work strictly in the contact-based paradigm.

The company began working toward a contact-based product a couple of years back, taking its cue from users abroad.

“North America was definitely more phone-centric in 2005 and 2006, while we saw Europe really starting to embrace a more contract-centric offering,” said Rob Brown, CounterPath’s vice president of marketing. “So we wanted to jump ahead a little bit and see if we could find a way to have them both.”

That meant adjusting not only the look of the softphone but also much of the underlying functionality. “For the power users, for those who wanted e-mail integration, who wanted to have multiple IM users, who wanted to look up web applications—we wanted to be able to combine those all in one client,” Brown said.

The company realized that in order to achieve those ends, it would have to carry out a sweeping makeover of the look and feel of the product. “Being tied into a phone-type interface, it is really difficult to do that kind of UI [user interface], to make it intuitive as to how you press certain buttons and carry out certain functions. The contact center approach was a much more efficient way to do that,” Brown said.

This thinking first drove the changes that led to Bria’s release. Now that same logic has caught up with the free version. As compared to Version 3.0, the latest X-Lite is “a completely different underlying technology,” Brown said. With access to favorites, history, a directory, and Web module support, the latest iteration takes a big step away from the purely phone-driven model of the past.

While CounterPath does have competition from companies such as Mirial, Brown said, the greater obstacle lies with the enterprise users themselves, many of whom still have fundamental concerns about the legitimacy of softphone usage.

“At the end of the day the biggest hurdle is that people still like to pick up a phone,” he said. “That’s getting better as more social media-type applications come into the market and people get used to using those applications on the computer. But from an enterprise point of view, this has been slow. People like to talk on a phone.”

That’s where products like X-Lite enter the picture. As a free point of entry, these tools, while less fully provisioned than their paid counterparts, still can help open doors. “One of the keys to X-Lite is that they can download it for free. You have to sit at your desk and really use it to realize that you are hands free, that you can multitask more efficiently without losing that conversation.”

If hands-free isn’t enough, CounterPath is looking to set users free of their desks entirely. In June the company launched a version of Bria for iPhone, and in October they plan a release of Bria for Android.

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