On Friday, Africa’s largest social network,Mxit, unveiled its new application programming interface ‚ which allows outside developers to produce applications for MXit. Gadget was in Stellenbosch for the occasion. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK chatted with MXit founder Herman Heunis about the new MXit, its role in the mobile apps market, why he still uses SMS, the impact of competition (or lack thereof), and the killer app that keeps him hooked on MXit.
Friday was a landmark day for Mxit (www.mxit.com) as it unveiled its new API (application programming interface)and lifted the lid ‚ a little ‚ on the engine behind the most successful social network in Africa. Presentations included an eye-opener from Blue Leaf Games (http://www.blueleafgames.com) founder Adrian Frielinghaus. He demonstrated how MXit not only had been instrumental in massive growth for their mobile game Moonbase, but also enabled them to turn it into a moneyspinner.
MXit has announced that it has about 28-million registered users, of which more than 20-million are South African. Research by World Wide Worx has indicated that just over a third of these are active users, which still gives it more than double the South African user base of Facebook. That makes it the most important social network in South Africa, and the biggest in Africa. With this context in mind, we were able to drag founder Herman Heunisaway from the launch event for a few minutes to talk about the MXit roadmap.
Arthur Goldstuck: How will the new MXit differ from the old?
Herman Heunis: The big difference is that we realised we were limited by our small staff of 140 people, and that there are far more creative guys out there, especially in gaming field. We realised if we can give them the tools as well as the rewards, like the Moonbase guys, we can enhance our offering to our user base substantially.
It’s going to be a little like the Apple app store, but the difference is, here you involve the whole social community, and you have interaction between members of this captive audience, so it is a different take on the app store.
AG: How is Moonbase different?
HH: What the Moonbase guys very cleverly managed to create is the whole concept of alliances. So yes, you play Moonbase, and play against someone, but you also enter alliances. And the moment you become part of an alliance, it’s almost like tribal wars. It’s not a game anymore, it’s serious.
The next step will be to enable direct communication between players. You can send a message, but it would be much nicer to see if the other player is online and enable one to one chat right now. That’s the next phase, and it will come very soon.
AG: MXit was an app before the era of apps. Now that everything is app-based, how does MXit fit into the new environment?
HH: We are past the stage of being an app. We’re now an infrastructure. That’s where we see ourselves. I always use the railway line analogy. We provide this railway line, and whatever you want to run on it is up to you and what users would like to see. So you can see we are well past the stage of being only an app. We provide billing, a user base, and support for all phones.
The variety of apps emerging now for MXit is going to be an interesting experience. I can imagine that there will be not only games, but also social upliftment stuff, educational stuff, and corporate uses. Time will tell. The important point is to make sure this evolution is given all the energy it needs to keep moving, but in such a way that we do not limit people.
Having said that, I’m sure a number of people in adult services would want to use it, which we won’t allow, and that is why we have a screening process.
AG: Given that SMS is the most expensive per-word form of communication in the world, what is your view of the likelihood that instant messaging in general and MXit in particular can help to kill off SMS?
HH: Many people sign up under the impression that it is an SMS replacement. It’s not. The moment they find out it’s not, they leave it. But if I have the right phone, it is in fact an SMS replacement, as long as your contacts are all on MXit. For me, on the iPhone, it is already an SMS replacement, because if someone sends me a MXit message, whether I’m logged onto it or not at that moment, the iPhone MXit app alerts me that there is a message.
AG: Do you ever use SMS?
HH: From time to time, yes. There is still a place for SMS. But it will eventually disappear. Currently there is no 100% substitute for it. It has got limitations, but has become such a part of everyday life, it’s almost difficult to comprehend a life without SMS. But in terms of price, for South Africans, it is expensive in its own right and compared to SMS prices in other countries. 50c or 65c is expensive for 170 characters.
AG: And that’s good for Mxit.
HH: Yes, it played a role in assisting us to take fairly good and rapid market share. But the time will come when SMS will become a secondary service, where people will use either social networks or social network instant messaging or embedded apps on the phone that will handle similar functionality. We are starting to see that already with multitasking operating systems for phones.
AG: BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is exploding in use among teenagers in upper economic segments of the population, particularly with the growing penetration of the Curve in the youth market. Have you seen any effect on MXit?
HH: We have not seen any impact. We are not even aware of it being an issue. Our growth figures in South Africa right now are the highest they have ever been. It is not uncommon for us to get 40 000 new registrations per day in South Africa. BlackBerry is too niche to affect that. The main reason it won’t change the landscape is that you need to have your contacts also having a BlackBerryto use it. I can tell you that the vast majority of our users use Java phones. It’s not that BlackBerry and BBM is bad or good, it’s just what it is. We’re not concerned about it.
AG: Interoperability between instant messaging applications is the holy grail of messaging. Does MXit share in that vision?
HH: It has been there since we started. It is quite important to make sure you have connections to the big ones, to GoogleTalk, Facebook, Twitter, and we’ve covered most of them. It is a continual battle, because they do upgrades on a regular basis. The days of walled gardens are nearing injury time. If you don’t do it, you eliminate a large potential user base.
AG: How does Herman Heunis use MXit?
HH: I use it every day. For all my communications with our technical staff, especially when I’m overseas, it’s MXit. When I chat to my family, I’m also using it. And I check weather on a daily basis. I use Acuweather ‚ my favourite app. In MXit, I can check it with one click.
AG: What kind of growth do you expect as you roll out the new MXit?
HH: We hope to have everyone in South Africa on MXit very soon. Part of the challenge was bad press, which is subsiding. Obviously our educational initiatives are paying off, we’re working closely with the Department of Education, we’re developing mobile wallets and games. Everything we do is intended to increase our user numbers. It is not inconceivable to get one in three people in South Africa on MXit.