Vodacom would have launched Please Call Me – even without Makate’s idea

Vodacom would still have launched its ‘Please Call Me’ service, even if Kenneth Nkosana Makate had never shared his idea with his former employer.

This is the view of Ari Kahn, the legal expert who invented and patented ‘CallMe’ – the forerunner to Vodacom’s ‘Please Call Me’.

Makate has spent over 15 years in a drawn-out legal battle with Vodacom regarding compensation for his ‘Buzz’ idea.

He maintains that his idea allowed Vodacom to build and launch its ‘Please Call Me’ product in March 2001. He added that the service generated R250 billion in revenue in South Africa.

Makate’s original product idea, titled ‘Buzz’, was for a caller without airtime to be able to cause a ring on a recipient’s phone, requesting them to call back.

According to Kahn, Makate’s idea was dead on arrival. For several months, Vodacom engineers tried in vain to develop Makate’s idea into a working product, but “they simply could not reduce it to practice”, Kahn stated.

At this time, MTN had already introduced the public to their ‘CallMe’ service, which sent an SMS message to the recipient’s phone number instead of ringing.

Unlike Makate’s Buzz idea, Kahn’s CallMe had a practical framework for how to be implemented. It was, therefore, technically feasible.

By the time Vodacom launched its ‘Call Me’ service in March 2001, MTN had already released its ‘CallMe’ service and patented it.

This kind of patenting was unusual at the time, Kahn explains. “Back in 2000, this was the Wild Wild Cellular West,” Kahn said in a statement to Daily Investor.

He continued, “Vodacom, who thought it was business as usual, was utterly shocked to discover CallMe was patented.”

MTN served Vodacom a cease and desist for violating intellectual property rights. Kahn said the product Vodacom released was a carbon copy of MTN’s service and had much less to do with Makate’s ‘Buzz’.

With MTN knocking at the door, Vodacom changed the name of their product from ‘Call Me’ – the same name as MTN’s service – to ‘Please Call Me’. However, it left the technical specifications unchanged.

According to Kahn, the design and implementation of ‘Please Call Me’ had nothing to do with Makate. Rather, Vodacom abandoned ‘Buzz’ and followed in the footsteps of its competitor, MTN.

“Vodacom arrived at PCM simply because, in the seven weeks after MTN launched CallMe, over 100 million CallMe text messages had transited over the public networks,” stated Kahn.

Vodacom shares its view

Daily Investor asked Vodacom whether it would have launched Please Call Me if Makate had not shared his Buzz idea with the company.

A Vodacom spokesperson confirmed it was the case. “The telecommunications sector has continuous and competitive innovation. To this end, we would certainly have responded to market dynamics,” it said.

The mobile operator added that Makate only submitted a memo to them. This memo did not contain any technical or commercial information.

“It was an idea and did not include technical specifications on how to build the product or outline a commercial or business plan for the launch,” Vodacom said.

“Vodacom’s engineers and commercial team developed and implemented the solution that Vodacom currently terms Please Call Me.”

In terms of generating revenue, Vodacom’s initial plan was to charge for the service. However, the company abandoned it because MTN offered its CallMe service for free.

“Like many free services, Please Call Me was overly used by customers in the early days before a cap was introduced. Many used it as shorthand code,” Vodacom said.

“A money-spinner it is not – and it never was.”