The new MXit: A focus on social media, smartphones and African expansion

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New CEO Alan Knott-Craig is ringing the changes at MXit, a key emerging market mobile social network. Recently it was announced the company’s restructure would mean more focus, innovation and job losses.

Knott-Craig bought MXit a few months ago for an undisclosed sum from founder Herman Heunis and emerging markets internet giant Naspers.

The mobile youth messaging service operates in 128 countries. It is represented in international markets that include Malaysia, Kenya, India, Indonesia, United Kingdom, United States, Nigeria, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain, where users have access to MXit’s chat function.

MXit’s users currently send 22-billion messages a month and the average user spends 45 hours month on the service.

‘Focus on what we do best’
“We are a communications platform, that’s what we are. We need to stop doing everything else and do what we do best and that’s communication,” says Knott-Craig.

The future of MXit is pretty clear for the new CEO: Move away from all other services and focus on communication. This is the core message he emphasises. This move could be seen as dangerous, as it places the MXit in direct competition with other messaging platforms. Popular services, such as WhatsApp and BlackBerry’s messenger service (BBM), already enjoy success among audiences MXit hasn’t been able to penetrate.

MXit to focus on smart devices
Knott-Craig acknowledges the competition but doesn’t believe it’s something he needs to “lose sleep” over. He does, however, have a plan to tackle it.

“In a smackdown we beat them, because MXit is not just an instant messaging platform. There are also chatrooms. It’s a conversational medium rather than just one to one. However where they destroy us is the user experience, with iPhone, Android and BlackBerry. The truth is we need to compete there. If the application doesn’t look nice on my phone I won’t use it.”

With this in mind, a MXit app for smart devices such as iPhone, iPad, and Android devices is set to roll out in April 2012. Knott-Craig believes that smart devices will help the service reach the older market that has since eluded the company.

Focus on Africa
A big focus for the messaging platform at moment is Africa as Knott-Craig believes the continent is where the future of mobile lies.

“Everyday a thousand guys sign up in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, so we are doing quite well in Africa and we need to grow that, there are 47 countries on the continent after all.”

Knott-Craig recognises the opportunities for growth in developed markets and other emerging market regions. He believes that Africa’s potential is far too vast to not take advantage of the latent opportunities presented by mobile. Eventually MXit will move into developed markets and strategise around other emerging markets but right now Africa is its focus.

“Mobile is the future. Data is the future. Mobile phones will win the race to being the dominant screen. Data will keep getting cheaper and faster. Africa has the chance to leapfrog the rest of the world. I guess the problem is that although Africa has more mobile innovators than America, we just don’t have the same media coverage. Africa gets drowned out by Americans punting tech developments that have been in Africa for years,” he says.

Social media integration
There will be more social media integration to come for the platform including Twitter and Google+. Already MXit users can access Facebook and various instant messaging services such as Google Talk, MSN and Yahoo Messenger, from the app. Knott-Craig believes the space is fast-moving and MXit shouldn’t take its growth for granted. This integration, he believes, is crucial for its survival.

‘Apple will be dead in five years time, unless…’
“This is such a fast-moving environment. Things are constantly changing. I can’t think things will be the same in five years time. I mean, I think Apple will be dead in five years unless they get another Steve Jobs, what are the chances of that in the same company?”

Knott-Craig likens the space Jobs has left at Apple to artist Leonardo Di Vinci’s Mona Lisa. He believes that the great artist could have left precise instructions on how to paint his masterpiece but it “won’t be the Mona Lisa. Only the artist can make it. It’s the same with Apple.”

“I love Apple, but there is zero network effect on hardware, the place where they make their money. As soon as there is a better device people will move on to that. Look what happened to Nokia and Motorola. If you look at what I have with MXit, at least there is a much stronger barrier to entry because of your social graph. It’s much harder for people to eat my lunch because you have to take all your friends to a new platform and if they don’t go, you don’t go. But that doesn’t mean we’re safe! It just means we have some breathing room.”

‘Big Partnerships’
MXit will be announcing “big partnerships” in the coming months in order to adapt the fast-changing environment. First on the company’s list is popular mobile web browser Opera Mini.

“MXit and Opera Mini are hugely popular in South Africa, and this partnership will provide consumers with easy access to South Africa’s favourite web services,” said Lars Boilesen, CEO, Opera Software.

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