Home Science Technology Which Telco introduced “Please call me”?

Which Telco introduced “Please call me”?

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Please Call Me
Please Call Me

Do you remember “please call me”? The service that allowed you to send a message to another person asking them to call you back because you don’t have airtime.

It used to be very popular in Ghana, but no one really talks about or uses it anymore in the country. I don’t remember the last time anyone sent me a “please call me” message. In fact, I believe all the telcos in Ghana have completely deactivated that service.

Apparently, it all started from South Africa, where there is a raging legal battle over who owns it and who deserves to the paid compensation for it.

The case started with a former employee of Vodacom, Nkosana Makate suing the company for over $530 million as compensation for the use of the “please call me” service between 2001 and 2019. Makate claims to be the inventor of the service.

Vodacom did not dispute Makate’s claim of owning the idea, but offered to pay something far less than Makate asked for as compensation – $2.5 million. But the apex court of South Africa upheld Makate’s pleas and has asked Vodacom to come up with a fairer offer. That ruling was delivered just on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.

MTN contractor claims ownership

However, a former MTN contractor called Ari Kahn is also claiming ownership of the “please call me” idea, and his evidence in-chief was a patent he filed ahead of the 2001 launch of Makate’s idea at Vodacom.

The court however heard the testimony of a US-based independent computer science expert, Ivan Zatkovich, about the vast differences between the technologies behind MTN’s “please call me” service and that of Vodacom. On the basis of that testimony, both MTN and Vodacom agreed that the two ideas may have had similar front-end manifestations but in terms of the backend technology, they are mutually exclusive. So neither MTN nor Vodacom is disputing Makate’s claim to being the inventor of at least one of the two.

Find the full details of Ivan Zatkowich’s presentation to the court on the vast difference between Vodacom’s and MTN’s “please call me” services below:

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 service

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.

Vodacom’s service 

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. The left it all to Ari Kahn, who failed to prove that he was the inventor of Vodacom’s version of the “please call me” offering.

So, as things stand now, Vodacom has been ordered by the apex court to make a better offer to Makate, on the basis that he is entitled to something between 5-7.5% of the earnings Vodacom made from the services over the 18-year period between 2001 and 2019.

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