The protracted “please call me” saga is in the news again. At the centre of the saga is the latest breakdown in negotiations between Vodacom and its former employee Nkosana Makate over monetary compensation for the idea behind the service, which allows customers without airtime to send a text message asking the recipient to call them.
The story is well documented.
The constitutional court in 2016 found in favour of Makate as the inventor of “please call me”, and Vodacom had to enter into in good-faith negotiations with him to determine a reasonable settlement figure. The top court overturned judgments of lower courts.
The saga has also sparked a fierce debate about whether Makate or Vodacom’s rival MTN is the true inventor of the “please call me” service. This debate was sparked when Ari Kahn, a former MTN contractor, said in a radio interview that Makate doesn’t have rights to the service — and is thus not deserving of compensation.
Kahn said he filed a patent on a “please call me”-type innovation on behalf of MTN, beating Makate in claiming the rights to the service when Vodacom launched it in March 2001.
Arguably, the debate about the true inventor doesn’t take in to consideration that there are two different “please call me”-type services that were launched by two competing telecommunications giants.
Considering this, it is worth looking back at court records (in the public domain) about the brainchild of “please call me”.
When Makate’s battle with Vodacom started in 2005 at the high court in Johannesburg, it was not disputed by either party that MTN was the first to provide a “please call me”-type service. It was also accepted by Judge Philip Coppin in his 2014 judgment that the innovations launched by MTN and Vodacom were vastly different.
During the trial, Makate called an American computer science and telecommunications expert, Ivan Zatkovich, as a witness to testify about the differences between Vodacom and MTN’s offerings.
MTN’s patent, according to Zatkovich, was based on an interactive voice response (IVR) system.
Elaborating on the mechanics of an IVR system, Zatkovich said: “An example of this was the automated voice menu presented to you when calling an institution, such as a bank or insurance company to query something. A voice would come on saying, ‘Press one to check your account balance’ or ‘Press two to talk to customer services’.”
In practice, an MTN subscriber would call an IVR system, proceed to enter a key code and then enter the recipient’s phone number in order to initiate a “please call me” message.
Meanwhile, Vodacom’s “please call me” was based on a messaging system known as unstructured supplementary service data (USSD).
Said Zatkovich: “A USSD message, which includes Party A and Party B’s phone numbers, gets sent from the cellular phone of Party A (the person with no airtime) to the internal USSD server (infrastructure of a telecoms company). (The server) then extracts Party A’s and Party B’s phone numbers, composes a message in the form of an actual text message, which reads ‘Please call Party A’s phone number’ (and gives the number).”
The court also accepted Zatkovich’s testimony that the business model of the MTN and Vodacom system was different: Vodacom targeted customers with a prepaid cellphone but no airtime, while MTN “gave no indication of what market it was directed at”.
Vodacom didn’t challenge Zatkovich’s submission that Makate’s “please call me” service was “a novel and patentable idea”. It only led the evidence of former group CEO Alan Knott-Craig, who was found to have lied about inventing the service.
Curiously, MTN never applied to intervene in the court case, although its patent was prominently pitted against that of Vodacom. In the early 2000s, MTN and Vodacom were key players in South Africa’s telecoms industry and were competitive in defending their respective market shares.
In court, it appeared that MTN left it to Kahn to narrate its “please call me” patent. But outside the court, MTN issued Vodacom with a cease and desist on infringing its intellectual property — but never forged ahead with the matter.
- This article was originally published by Moneyweb and is used here with permission