MXit holds its own
As Facebook hits 750 million users, and Google+ is estimated to have exceeded 10 million users after only two weeks, SA's own home-grown mobile social network, MXit, is still holding its own.
The latest version of MXit, Version 6, was released at the end of June, and the service reports a 25% increase in new registrations, to over 60 000 per day.
MXit is the largest instant messenger and mobile social network in Africa, with over 39 million registered users. According to MXit, its user base has more than tripled in the last two years.
As social networking, and particularly mobile social networking, continues to grow exponentially around the globe, Juan du Toit, head of international business development and marketing for MXit, says MXit is wary of its competitors.
This week, Facebook announced its “Facebook on any phone” app, which is said to make the mobile version of the social network available for use on 2 500 different handsets - with the view of making the service more easily available in developing countries.
“People constantly ask us if we are threatened by the growth of Facebook,” says Du Toit. “It's a very complex discussion, but - while MXit does have features that are similar to those of Facebook and services like BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) - we are also unique in a number of aspects.
“We are very much aware of the growth and popularity of BBM. A major reason behind the development and launch of Version 6 is because we recognise the need to update our user interface for easier use and navigation, especially on smartphones, and to keep up with the international market.
“Instead of simply being concerned about competitors, we're trying to use the pressure in a positive way to inform the growth and development of our own offering.”
First mover advantage
While the development of MXit started in 2003, the service was first launched in 2005 and was primarily an instant messaging platform.
Analyst and MD of World Wide Worx Arthur Goldstuck says the real key to MXit's success is that it recognised the need for instant messaging very early on.
“It was truly the first instant messaging service that was available on any phone - almost every other offering at the time required a smartphone,” says Goldstuck.
“MXit was a God-send for the youth who so heavily relied on SMS. SMS is the most expensive form of communication that there is if one considers how much it actually costs per character. But MXit turned that model on its head. For one cent, users could not just send a message, but have an entire conversation.”
Du Toit adds that, while smartphones are becoming the accepted device in a number of markets, in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, people are only just beginning to use such devices, and only just discovering social networking.
“At the core, MXit has always focused on feature phones, and making the service available across a broad range of handsets,” says Du Toit.
He explains that MXit supports 3 000 handsets, and development of the service looks to cater for the growing number of smartphones, without neglecting the mass market of feature phones.
In the 2011 Mobility study, MXit came out as the most widely used social networking and instant messaging application in the South African mobile market, with 24% of users using the service. The same study did, however, show Facebook Mobile was catching up to MXit, reaching 22% of users, and in fact passing MXit in the urban over-16 market, with 30% reach, versus 13% among rural users.
Goldstuck points out that a number of users may have stopped using the service because of its poor rendering on smartphones. “The new version looks a lot better though and it may even restore MXit's user base among those who own smartphones.
“BBM is a big threat though. BBM first cannibalised MXit's market among pupils at private schools, but as BlackBerry devices cross the affordability barrier, BBM may grow among the broader youth population, posing a threat to MXit's dominance.”
Goldstuck adds that the other quiet contender in the mobile instant messaging space is WhatsApp. “While MXit is watching Facebook, BBM is watching MXit and ignoring the impending threat of WhatsApp.”
According to Du Toit, the majority of MXit users are within the 19-25 age group. “Our user retention is quite good. The way in which we approach our product development is to keep both the youth and adult markets in mind.”
Beyond the youth
Goldstuck says it is a challenge for MXit to shake its image of being just a tool for the youth.
“The reason why it features so strongly in our mobility surveys is because we look at the over-16 market - these are people who started using MXit when they were young and they continue using it as young adults. This is vital for MXit's growth, because of the increasingly wide range of choices available.”
Goldstuck adds that the growth of MXit is part of the huge popularity of instant messaging. “It's an indicator of what will drive phone usage in the future. Phones are become messaging platforms not just phones.”
He adds that MXit's strength lies in its differentiators - such as its mobile commerce platform, MXit Xchange.
“MXit Xchange also really gives MXit the edge since it is unlikely Facebook or BlackBerry would come up with a similar offering.”
According to Du Toit, MXit is looking at expanding its mobile commerce offerings and better catering for the needs of young adults - especially in terms of offering an easy way to pay bills, and university administration fees. “We also want to become a platform that companies and organised groups can use to easily communicate and disseminate information.
“People who don't use MXit still think of it as an instant messaging platform, and we will always retain that feature, because of its enormous value to our users,” says Du Toit.
“We are proud to say that the evolution of MXit over the last five or so years has culminated in it becoming a serious player in the global social networking space.”
Du Toit adds: “I think that a company like MXit has the advantage of being able to provide small local nuances that are difficult for a big global company to understand, even if they have regional representation. MXit's development and deployment of services all happen right here in SA.
“We don't necessarily want to become a huge monster of a company, but we want to be a leader in the mobile networking space and become the default platform that people use to chat and make use of a range of other services within the context of the MXit application.”