Motribe: The Mobile Web Community Builder

The Mobile Web is the future of mobile apps, and it’s not surprising to see Vincent Maher and Nic Haralambous, from South Africa, on the front end of it. Motribe is a simple community building platform for the mobile web. You can easily get a site up and going in an hour that allows chat, photo sharing, private messaging and mobile blogs.

That bit about the mobile web is important, since it means you can browse to it on most phones, and you don’t need a special app for it built on all the smartphone platforms, like iPhone, Android, Ovi, WinMo and Bada – as in, there’s one less barrier to entry.

I asked Vincent why he chose mobile web, his response:

“Mobile is the killer internet platform for Africa, but also the rest of the world. We have found that our younger users prefer using an ipod touch to surf the web than a PC. Motribe works on 4000 devices (or more) and the Motribe plan is to change the way people use social networks in emerging markets.”

Initial funding was raised 4DI Capital, and they’ve got a clear business strategy, which is to sell their product. Pricing ranges from $10 to $50, and each level gives you a greater ability to customize and “own” the mobile social network that you’ve built. There is also an enterprise level available for bigger brands and companies. Motribe also has a free plan with core features and a 100-user limit for you to get started quickly.

Its built on Amazon EC2, S3, RDS and Cloudfront using PHP, Codeigniter, Google Charts, JQuery and Cassandra. Vincent stated that, “Cassandra is the most interesting of the components because its going to be the key to scaling to millions of users.”

Giving it a Test Run

I went ahead and signed up to give Motribe a whirl. My test site is AfriGadget.Motribe.mobi, where I’ll put up some stuff from AfriGadget and see if a community grows around it. Just getting going, I can see that a lot of attention has been put behind this platform (as would be expected with veterans like Vincent and Nic).

Some notes:

  • Signup: done easily, nice little touch to provide a QR code directing to a URL for login.
  • Setting up a community: simple, see image below.
  • Access code: for when you want only certain people to join
  • Test mode: for making sure your community is setup right before it goes live
  • Themes: many simplified stock themes available out of the box.
  • QR code generator: there’s a neat QR code generated for the URL of your new site. (Would be nice to have this as an embed code for websites)

There are a couple example sites already going – emofwendz.com is the one they ran for the pilot, and it has some fantastic engagement stats, like an average of over 100 pages viewed per visit (the norm for web sites is about 5) and average visit lengths of around 60 minutes. Today, Vincent said, an Afrikaans-language site was created for Christians http://ekerk.motribe.mobi, its a good example of exactly what they people to do with the platform.

Some Thoughts

If there’s any platform that’s come out of Africa in the last year that fills a global need, it’s Motribe. I won’t be surprised to see this go big at all.

There are always teething pains, experimentation and adjustments when a new platform goes live. I found a few issues, like when I went to upload my logos they threw a bug (I was a pixel off on the size, thus the issue). Not unexpected in a brand new platform, and I’m sure it’ll be fixed shortly.

I wasn’t able to test out the “Custom URL” and “Advertising Manager” features, though I would like to see how each is implemented. It might be worth having a section on the website to preview at least the Advertising Manager in more detail to see if it’s worth upgrading to.

There isn’t any SMS functionality yet, and I’m not sure there needs to be either. As Vincent said, “we don’t have a need for SMS right now but we may well integrate SMS at a later stage depending on whether we can find some good uses for it.”

Worth reading: other posts by TechCentral and the Daily Maverick.

Location, Mobiles and Social Networks

It’s all beginning to come together, at least on the fringe where all of us technocrats live. Social networks have been humming along quite nicely, many people you know are now part of a service like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo or Mxit. On the edges, some applications have started to pair up location-based services around them, thus the rise of smaller applications like FireEagle, Loopt and Brightkite.

What’s always seemed to be missing is a way for location, mobile phones and social networks to coalesce. A way for you to communicate with people, be it updates, comments or chat – and then apply location to that as you chose. Those social networks that tried to do it all couldn’t do it at this level, because they didn’t have critical mass (such as Brightkite). Those that had reach, like Twitter or Facebook, don’t have a simple way to play with location for everyone.

Enter Google Latitude

Just over a week ago, Google Latitude launched. It’s a location-based service that mashes up Google’s own mapping products with Google’s communication products; Gmail and gTalk (chat). One week later, they announced that a million people were already using the service in the 27 countries that they had released it into.

Google Latitude Screenshot

While people are discussing how great the technology works, and it does seem to be quite impressive if you carry one of the supported smart phones platforms (BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android), I believe there’s something even bigger going on here. Google has not had much success in the social network space, so they are taking a rather nontraditional approach to getting embedded into people’s lives at a much more foundational level. Gmail has a base of 50 million+ accounts, and each comes with a chat service, which has gained quite a bit of popularity. Not to mention, SMS was enabled within chat just a couple months ago, in December.

What Google appears to be doing, is leveraging its massive user base, tied together through email and chat services, and pairing it together into a larger community that works within it’s mapping infrastructure.

(Putting on my Ushahidi hat, this has some pretty big ramifications for disaster and emergency work in locations where Google use is heavy.)

The competition

It also has the potential to change the game for some other large services. What happens if people start using Google Latitude for their status updates instead of Twitter and Facebook? What service do you use to find out what’s happening on a Friday night?

It will be very interesting to see what types of reactions to this service arise out of the large social networks, especially those with a large international footprint. Getting location, mobile and social networks to play together isn’t easy, yet these organizations will not sit by as Google whittles away at their empire.

Here’s something to think about. If you didn’t realize this before, pay attention: the big international showdown in this space is between Google and Nokia in the coming years. They have been gaming each other for over two years, and as the race to the edges begins, you’ll see them come head-to-head more often.

Nokia Ovi

1.5 years ago Nokia bought mapping service Navteq in a mega-deal at over $8 billion. Last summer they launched Ovi, which allows remote sync capability for photos, contacts and calender, gains access to music and games, and marries up their mapping and sharing capabilities. It’s what Nokia is banking on for their consumer value-added services in the future.

I’m not sure who will win out on usage in the end, but I do think that Google’s Latitude is an incredibly strong and under-the-radar type play that should be watched very closely. One thing is for sure though, the organization that opens up for easy third-party development on their platform will have a better chance.

Blueworld: South Africa’s Social Network

Charl Norman is one of the great examples of new media entrepreneurs coming out of South Africa. He’s has an amazing work ethic, showcased in a growing blog empire and three popular social networks. What Charl has been able to do in the last couple years should put the fire under any other web entrepreneur in Africa. He does quality work, finds hidden niches and works hard to promote them.

One of the social networks that Charl created was Blueworld, a social networking site for (younger) South Africans. Recently 24.com acquired a controlling stake in Blueworld for an undisclosed amount. That’s a big success story for a little startup, and one that gives Charl enough money to go do even more exciting things.

Blueworld: A South African Social Network

Blueworld is a social community where anyone can join and create a profile so your friends can find you online, upload an unlimited number of photos, share videos, write your own blogs, support your peers with groups, send text messages to any network for free, discover new people and connect with friends.

I remember when Blueworld first came out a couple years ago. Like many social networks, it was fairly simple and bare-bones. Looking at the most recent version though, you can see major changes. There are a lot more people using it, and the site is more robust.

Like any other social network, once you gain enough users you have critical mass and the site grows on its own. With 137,000 registered users by March of this year, Blueworld is becoming quite a force in the web space in South Africa. By any measure, Blueworld is a resounding success story for Africa.

Find out more about Charl at his blog, but also check out some of his other work:

Bandwidth Blog (SA web startup news)
BlogBuzz (a mini SA blog aggregator)
Carblog
GayPeers (social network for gays/lesbians in SA)
NetBuzz (a mini SA news aggregator)
Powerloss (focused on power/energy issues in SA)
SA Rugby Blog
Zoopedup (automotive social network)