SMS becomes e-mail and chat – Safaricom implements new service and others will follow shortly

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In issue 452 in May 2009 we asked what the difference was between e-mail and SMS? Answer: A different interface and one has a far more limited length of message. The moment has now arrived at which the distinction between the two will now become completely blurred. Russell Southwood talks to Jeremy George, the COO of ForgetMeNot Africa about the implementation of a new service called Kipokezi which has just launched with Safaricom.

ForgetMeNot Africa’s implementation means that all standard phones that can SMS can be turned into phones that can use e-mail and chat. The company sets up a gateway for the operator that translates SMS into e-mail and vice-versa. So for example, if your message is longer than a single SMS it will go out as two linked SMS messages and it will also be possible to send it to e-mail addresses.

Users need to register but there is a simple “auto-register” procedure. The user then simply simply adds a contact and gets a number to send the e-mail to. The user can also set up a chat with another user by just adding “chat”. Everyone registered gets their own e-mail address which is “

So now 15 million mobile phone subscribers in Kenya – over a third of the country’s
population - will now be able to access email and online chat regardless of the make and model of their mobile phone. The new Kipokezi service is being rolled out by Kenya’s largest telecoms operator, Safaricom, suppliers of mobile phone connectivity for almost 9 in 10 Kenyan mobile phone subscribers. 

Safaricom CEO, Michael Joseph pointed out that it has been “the price of Internet-ready phones that has kept many Kenyans off the web,a trend we are determined to
Change”. According to the company, 3.5 million out of the 5 million Kenyans who access the Internet do so through their 3G network. He believes that it will be widely used by the tech-savvy youth of Kenya, particularly for chat services like MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, Windows Live and Gtalk so that users can send and receive messages and invitations globally.
The only downside is that if your message is two SMSs long, you pay for two SMSs to send it but you pay nothing to receive it. However, Safaricom’s tariff for chat is a third of the cost for e-mail as most chat messages are shorter. Another network ForgetMeNot Africa is working with is looking at a chat tariff that will be one sixth of the e-mail rate.

So is the service being picked up anywhere else on the continent? Econet Lesotho implemented it at the end of last year and has already got a “high single figures percentage figure registered” out of their total subscriber base.

ForgetMeNot Africa is also working with another half dozen operators on implementation: one in Southern Africa (which is just a few weeks away from launch); a couple in West Africa; and a couple in East Africa (which are at the trial stage).

In several previous stories in the last year, we have talked about how the Internet in Africa will gain “critical mass” over the next two years. The blurring of the distinction between SMS and e-mail is another clear step in that direction. Users just want to communicate and they want to be able to do that as easily as possible.