The rise of WhatsApp in South Africa — and how it can fall

WhatsApp didn’t stumble into dominance. It grew into the dominant force in mobile messaging over many years, and it could be overtaken by its competition if it repeats the mistakes of the platforms it defeated.

Even though WhatsApp launched on iOS in 2009 at the very beginning of the modern smartphone age, it entered a highly competitive market.

We already had BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Google Talk, and Skype.

In South Africa we also had Mxit — a powerhouse of a messaging app that had way more momentum than WhatsApp and ran on older cellphones.


When Mxit launched in 2005, it gave many their first taste of cheap mobile instant messaging.

Even though data wasn’t cheap in 2005, Mxit brought the cost of 160-character messages down from roughly 30c–80c for an SMS, to under 1c.

Mxit wasn’t perfect, though. It only ran on devices that had a Java ME runtime, and chat participants had to be online at the same time to send messages to one another.

While it was a cheaper alternative to SMS, Mxit was not a complete replacement for SMS.

Mxit was also too slow to adapt to the way smartphones changed the mobile landscape in 2009 and 2010.

By 2012 it was already too late to save Mxit. BlackBerry had become South Africa’s smartphone of choice, and WhatsApp had quietly grown into the dominant cross-platform mobile messenger.

blackberry curve 8520
BlackBerry Curve 8520

Although BlackBerry Messenger was first released in 2005, the service really took off in South Africa after the release of the BlackBerry Curve 8520 in 2009.

It gave BlackBerry all the elements needed for a runaway hit:

  • BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) — a cheap, uncapped mobile Internet package for the flat rate of R59 per month
  • BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) — a store-and-forward text messaging service that was streets ahead of SMS and Mxit
  • BlackBerry Curve 8520 — an affordable, 2G-only mid-range smartphone

Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Internet Service business model proved to be unsustainable.

As BlackBerry devices evolved from being focused on email and messaging to more fully-featured smartphones, the BIS network couldn’t keep up.

BIS started getting a reputation for being slow and unreliable, causing even the staunchest BlackBerry fans to look to iPhone and Android devices.

BlackBerry devices also stopped being price competitive, and iPhones and Android devices started offering much better features — such as higher resolution cameras and simpler cloud service integration.

As Mxit and BlackBerry dropped the ball, WhatsApp stood ready to step into the gap they left in the market.

In 2012/13, there was still a plethora of phone operating systems, and people wanted a way to send messages to one another regardless of the phone they chose.

Whether you were on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia Series 40, Symbian, or Windows Phone, WhatsApp was available for your platform.

WhatsApp’s excellent feature-set and wide platform support earned its spot as the dominant mobile messaging platform in the world.

In 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for around $19.3 billion.

However, just as WhatsApp gradually grew its market share and then rapidly overtook services like Mxit and BBM when they misstepped, it also faces competition from platforms like Telegram and Signal.

While there hasn’t yet been a major shift in technology like there was with Mxit and BlackBerry, WhatsApp could misstep in several other ways that would allow competitors to eat its lunch.

Already Telegram and Signal benefitted from a blunder earlier this year when WhatsApp threatened to cut users off if they don’t accept its new privacy policy.

Advertising and monetisation is another area with major pitfalls for WhatsApp.

Should Facebook’s approach to monetisation be too intrusive, it could easily drive users to competing platforms.

Such changes in sentiment and behaviour need not be sudden like they were with WhatsApp’s privacy policy change.

A lesson to be learnt from the companies WhatsApp had to beat in its rise to the top is that user behaviour changes slowly, and then all at once.

Now read: Never lose your WhatsApp history again

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The rise of WhatsApp in South Africa — and how it can fall