Ten years after launching the world’s first mobile instant messenger, Chikka remains the most pervasive digital communications tool for Filipinos worldwide with its ‘as simple as texting’ business model

When Internet pioneers over at Google, Yahoo and Microsoft were caught in the race to bring instant messaging (IM) to the mobile platform, Chikka’s motley crew of “technologists” were already fine-tuning their programming back-end to launch the world’s first instant messenger seamlessly integrated with SMS technologies. This was in the late ’90s to early 2000, a time when Internet penetration was a mere 2 percent of the Philippine population.

“Mobile texting was already big here. There was always that compulsion to communicate among Filipinos both here and overseas. Even then, the Philippines was already the SMS capital of the world—texting was even bigger than the Internet,” recounts Dennis Mendiola, founder of Chikka. “It was fortunate that we began when the number of overseas Filipino workers was growing. They still wanted to connect with relatives here, which was quite expensive at that time, and we saw that as an opportunity. We were so positive that Chikka would work—with its simple and cheap texting via the Internet—that we took pains in building a back-end that could withstand the huge volume of people we forecasted will seize our service.”

True enough, Chikka has successfully brought mobile instant messaging, online auctions, dating, and popular Internet applications to a sea of texters. And with Internet penetration now at 30 percent, the company continues its mission and has evolved to bring its PC-to-mobile instant messaging application to new platforms. “Since our launch, we’ve had a total registration of about 68 million users. We do 16 million site visits a month, 1 million log-ins a day, and have 3 million active users on a monthly basis,” shares Mendiola. “We’ve had such tremendous growth.”

A Dynamic Mobile Internet Landscape

A decade ago, companies would have been skeptical about integrating mobile- and Internet-related solutions into their businesses, but today’s business scene has dramatically changed. Even the banking industry, conservative an industry as it is, has taken to adapting e-commerce or e-banking as part of the business model. Retail businesses are finding it more effective to promote their products using non-traditional channels like social networking giants Facebook, Multiply and Twitter—all significantly cheaper than traditional advertising.

“The beauty of it is that we are actually witnessing the convergence between the mobile internet and the Internet as we know it through the PC,” shares Mendiola. “Internet access is now cheaper not only for the PC but for mobile; smart and legacy phones, netbooks and tablets are now becoming cheaper; plus we’ve seen the success of instant messaging and social networking, which has given Wpeople more reason to believe in the technology. Bottom line, what we have right now is a great opportunity for growth, and I’m not just talking about service providers like Chikka, but also for the telcos. We’re now looking at a population that is eager to embrace mobile Internet and the Internet in general.”

The mobile Internet landscape has changed so much in the last decade that to a certain extent, text messaging has gone the way voice calls have gone before. “Text messaging is more intimate now,” shares Junie Agcaoili, corporate communications director. “Before, you would get text messages from people greeting you on your birthday and then you’d get a voice call from mom, which is more intimate. Now, people would greet you on Facebook and then you’d get a text message from mom. In social networking, it’s a broadcast; and while that is great in itself, for more intimate messages, we still rely on a typical me-to-you type of texting. What’s good about Chikka is that we live in both worlds—mobile and the Internet. This is why we’ll remain an important medium for communication.”

Riding the Mobile Wave

The world now teems with technological enhancement. With heavy-hitters like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo continuously coming up with ways to enhance their service portfolios (at exponentially accelerated paces, one might add), the end-user has a wide variety of accumulated innovations addressing his every business and personal need. The evolutionary engine runs faster than ever, opening the door to new and often unforeseen possibilities.

“Our view now is that there are really too many ways to communicate—there’s Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Plurk and other social networks and social media,” says Mendiola. “But this may actually result to a lot of confusion to the market. Chikka’s strength lies in its simplicity—it’s as easy as texting. We provide an easy, cost-efficient way for Filipinos to communicate. But we do realize the importance of evolution, which is why we are working hard to develop new services and applications that would address our market’s needs better.”

Chikka heavily invests on its patent portfolio and is expected to launch a new wave of products, especially after its recent acquisition in December 2009 by SMART Communications. “We now have more resources for research and development. SMART is giving us access to their system and we think of it as a huge playground to test new ideas before bringing them into the market,” enthuses Mendiola. “What does it mean for the end-user? It means that Chikka’s products will come out faster and cheaper than ever before.”

“When SMART acquired the company, they realized the universality of our platform,” adds Agcaoili. “We established the mobile applications development industry in the Philippines. When the rest of the world was learning to text and when they wanted to start creating text applications, they looked toward the Philippines. And we at Chikka are very proud of that.”

This article was published in the Business Agenda section of the Manila Bulletin, August 30, 2010.