MTN recently announced that it will launch a new instant messaging service in all of its markets, including South Africa.
MTN Group CEO Rob Shuter said the IM service would form part of the company’s mobile money portfolio and function as the “WeChat of Africa”, enabling mobile payments for the unbanked and underbanked.
The rollout of the application will begin in African markets as a pilot and expand to South Africa in the future.
While MTN seems confident in its plans to offer localisation features, SMS integration, and data incentives to MTN customers, the messaging service will have to compete with WhatsApp – the ubiquitous application which is extremely popular in South Africa.
MTN previously stated that its new application would attract South African users with its features, but it is important to remember that this battle has played out before – and the company did not come out on top.
In 2007, MTN launched an instant messaging service named NokNok in South Africa to take on the then-popular messaging application MXit.
The mobile operator positioned its NokNok service as a direct MXit competitor, offering incentives for MTN customers who used the platform and a similar suite of features.
NokNok allowed subscribers to chat in real time, join chat rooms, create their own private chat rooms, and share pictures.
Despite its offering, NokNok failed to gain significant traction in South Africa, with local users preferring to use MXit – and later BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).
As a result, MTN shut down its NokNok instant messaging platform on 30 June 2011.
Popular messaging apps have also proved to be resilient to other mobile operators taking them on, with Vodacom launching its own IM platform named Meep in 2007 which functioned similarly to MXit.
Vodacom’s Meep service did not last, officially shutting down in November 2009.
With MTN’s plan to return to the instant messaging space in South Africa, despite it previous failure and WhatsApp’s dominance, MyBroadband asked MTN about its plan of action this time around.
Taking on WhatsApp
MTN told MyBroadband that its new app would be different to previous services, as it was built by an in-house team.
“NokNok launched in 2007 and was based on an GSMA IMPS off-the-shelf platform, it was shut off in 2011 with just over one million registered users in South Africa,” MTN told MyBroadband.
“The standard and platform was built in a first-world context and off-the-shelf solutions are inherently difficult and expensive to customise.”
The mobile operator said that instant messaging services need to constantly evolve according to user needs and take advantage of the network and handset technology available in the market.
“Many IM services have failed at this, with the emergence of smartphones. We aim to become the number one messaging platform in our markets.”
The company believes this is possibly for two reasons.
- The service was built and designed by MTN itself, which the company said will allow it to continuously respond to customer needs, changes in context, or improvements in technology.
- The service will offer the unique feature of allowing users to chat with anyone on a mobile device, regardless of whether they have the application or not.
MTN is confident in the potential of its new messaging application, but this confidence will be tested against the ubiquity of WhatsApp in South Africa.