opinion


One million users for SKT Joyn but is ‘free’ enough to tempt subs away from KakaoTalk?

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Almost twelve months after Vodafone Spain became the first mobile operator to officially launch Joyn, South Korea’s SK Telecom has announced a fairly impressive one million users for its Joyn.T service, just 50 days after it was launched in December 2012.

SKT is the first of the seven operators that have launched Joyn services in four countries in the past twelve months to have announced user numbers, though it has not stated what proportion of the one million Joyn.T subscribers are active users. The operator made the Joyn.T Android application available for download from its T Store, but mobile subscribers can also download it from Google Play, from where the application had between 10,000-50,000 downloads in the 30 days to February 19, 2012.

The announcement is timely for the GSM Association given that it comes the week before the industry body’s Mobile World Congress, where Rich Communications Suite (RCS), and Joyn in particular, will likely be a key focus.

The SKT numbers also give Joyn a much-needed boost, coming as it does within weeks of Deutsche Telekom being forced to issue a clarification about its delayed launch of Joyn services in Germany. DT said that an error in translation resulted in the reporting of an “indefinite delay” in the launch of Joyn in Germany, which was originally scheduled for December 2012, when in fact the operator had simply declined to state a new launch date. Informa understands that DT is currently conducting a sizeable user trial of the live service on its network, and that a launch is imminent.

According to SKT, the GSMA said that the success of its Joyn.T launch will likely accelerate the commercialization of Joyn globally. Joyn services are already available from mobile operators in Spain (Vodafone, Telefonica and Orange), Germany (Vodafone) and the US (MetroPCS), as well as from SKT rivals LG Uplus and KT Freetel.

The GSMA stated at Informa’s Rich Communications event in Berlin in November that 30 operators in 18 countries had committed to launching Joyn services, not all of which were opcos of operators that have already launched services. However, by Informa’s own reckoning, just ten operators (and their subsidiaries) are planning launches on 24 networks in an additional 16 countries, not including Spain, Germany, the US and South Korea, where services have already launched.

Most recently, it’s been reported that Singapore’s Starhub is working with partner network Vodafone on a Joyn launch, scheduled for 2H13. It is likely that Starhub’s Joyn service will make use of Vodafone’s hosted RCS capability, with Vodafone recently stating that it is already helping seven partner and competitor networks deploy RCS-based services, with another seven networks and a mobile operator with a group of 13 networks in the pipeline.

But it remains to be seen whether those mobile operators who are doubtful about RCS services will be sufficiently convinced by the positive subscriber response to SKT’s launch of Joyn.T, especially since SKT’s success appears to be an isolated case. None of the other mobile operators that have launched Joyn services have disclosed user numbers, and Google Play data would tend to suggest that mobile subscribers have not rushed to download their respective Joyn applications. For example, both the Joyn by Vodafone and the Joyn by MetroPCS Android applications had between 100,000-500,000 downloads in the 30 days to February 19. That is an improvement since January 25, however, when the respective applications had between 50,000-100,000 downloads and between 10,000-50,000 downloads.

Meanwhile, the uptake of Joyn.T is particularly notable given that South Korea is also home to KakaoTalk, one of the first over-the-top messaging applications, which launched in March 2010 and which at last count had 75 million downloads. Indeed, it was the uptake of KakaoTalk (among others) that led to the demise of SKT’s Mobile Messenger service, which was launched in August 2006, and which then developed into an interoperable “pre-RCS” service in March 2009, alongside KT Freetel’s Show Messenger and LG Telecom’s Oz Messenger.

SKT initially offered Mobile Messenger for free, and the number of subscribers to the service grew from 216,000 in May 2009 to 1.2 million by June 2010, while monthly traffic increased from 13.5 million messages to 243 million messages during the same period. However, once SKT started charging for Mobile Messenger, user numbers and traffic fell dramatically, as subscribers migrated to the ‘free’ applications provided by KakaoTalk and others.

It is possible that a proportion of KakaoTalk users may switch back to Joyn.T. But KakaoTalk has in the meantime created additional revenue-generating consumer-facing services, such as branded emoticons (stickers) and games, and has also launched a digital publishing platform targeted at enabling brands and content providers to provide services and content to KakaoTalk users. In so doing, KakaoTalk has taken steps to differentiate itself from competitive plays (such as Joyn.T) in a bid to ensure it remains a relevant and preferred service for its users, and it is generating revenues from these services.

By contrast, it appears that SKT has accepted that initially, at least, Joyn.T will not be a directly revenue-generating service, and the operator has even extended the availability of Joyn.T as an unlimited, “free-for-life” service to smartphone users on flat-rate data plans; previously Joyn.T had been available for free to SKT’s 3G All-in-One and LTE  subscribers on flat-rate data plans. Data usage associated with Joyn.T messaging will also be free, including messages sent from Joyn.T devices to non-Joyn.T devices (smart-phones and feature-phones), which will be delivered as SMSes.

The operator is also offering its Joyn.T customers the ability to exchange content, sticker and emoticons via the rich messaging capability, but it has not disclosed whether these will be additional revenue-generating services.

SKT is looking ahead, however, and plans to link Joyn.T to its HD Voice VolTE service, and to open up its Joyn.T APIs to small-to-medium enterprises. The latter strategy should help SKT to generate additional revenues, as SMEs tap into the operator’s infrastructure in order to be able to offer Joyn.T-based applications and services such as games, social networking and mobile commerce.

At present, Joyn.T appears to be more of a customer retention strategy for SKT. Certainly, the operator is playing to its strengths in terms of its existing billing relationships with its mobile subscribers, and consequently its ability to be able to bundle access to Joyn.T with its mobile data plans.

But it remains to be seen whether offering Joyn.T for free is going to be enough to tempt SKT subscribers away from KakaoTalk, which has in the intervening years developed its offering beyond simply ‘free’ messaging, made its application available on multiple device OSes (Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Bada, WindowsPhone), and built up a substantial user base.

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