Who really invented the Please Call Me service?
It’s the question that’s been repeated innumerable times as the free messaging service saga reached a crescendo last week with threats, accusations and demonstrations outside Vodacom World.
The answer – as is now common cause – was Ari Kahn, MTN’s lead data consultant who pioneered this innovative idea. “Callme” as he first named it, was an idea he had on the 15th of November 2000, he told me last week.
Kahn briefed MTN’s lawyers Spoor and Fisher on 16 November and, remarkably, Kahn had a working prototype the next day. He had some experience, having built the runaway success that was MTNsms.com, a website that let people send free SMSes.
Spoor and Fisher submitted his patent on 22 January 2001 as a “method and system for sending a message to a recipient”.
The next day the service was launched. The results were so spectacular, at first Kahn thought it was a technical error. “Within the first three days over 1.5m Callme messages had been sent over the public MTN network. In the first month, Callme reached market saturation.”
Meanwhile, Nkosana Makate was a trainee accountant at Vodacom who says he came up with the idea to stay in contact with his then girlfriend, now wife, because he didn’t know whether she wasn’t calling him back because she wasn’t romantically interested in him or just didn’t have airtime.
Makate took his former employers to court, where he lost two court cases, before the Constitutional Court ruled in his favour in 2016. Last month he was reportedly offered R49m by Vodacom following the stipulated negotiation process.
Vodacom’s chief officer for corporate affairs Takalani Netshitenzhe admitted, in a full-page advertisement in the Mail & Guardian, that “Ari Kahn, who consulted for MTN created the ‘Call Me’ technology in 2000 and the SA Patent office granted the Call Me patent to Kahn and MTN”.
“The initial plan to charge for the service was abandoned by the company. It is also noteworthy to mention that, Please Call Me was launched in the month after MTN launched its version called ‘Call Me’.”
So why didn’t Vodacom save itself the hassle and admit back then it was MTN’s idea?
It’s hard to tell, but there were big egos involved in the then nascent cellular industry and the duopoly of MTN and Vodacom were fierce competitors.
Even though the lower courts found for Vodacom, its legal mistake was never presenting the evidence that might have exonerated it, or proved in patent law what’s called “prior art”.
Makate tweeted last week to say he has taken the offer on judicial review. He disputes Vodacom’s offer, both it and MTN’s version of the timeline and debates why MTN didn’t uphold its initial patent application. MTN said last week it was more interested in building the cellular industry.
This drama, it seems, isn’t over. What is certain is that Please Call Me was a runaway success and is now as essential a part of the South African cellular landscape as cellphones themselves.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail