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Now here’s a clever approach to going viral: Orange’s Libon app, which offers a WhatsApp-like messaging service, can now be used to communicate with people who don’t already use it. This is something that those scrappier upstarts don’t offer.
Libon 3.0 came out on Thursday. A key feature is the ability to message someone just using their phone number. The recipient gets an SMS showing the message and a link, and when they click on the link they get taken to the Libon web app, which automatically logs them in even if they don’t have an account. From there, they can carry on a rich chat session, with file transfer, the ability to see when someone is typing and so on.
What’s more, even if others communicate with them in the same way, without the user actually creating a Libon account, the web app is smart enough to aggregate all those conversations. As platform chief Giles Corbett put it to me, the user becomes “in a sense a virtual user of Libon.” Of course, the web app does encourage users to download the native iOS(s aapl) or Android(s goog) app as well.
“From the user’s perspective, the benefit is: they just message,” Corbett told me. “From our perspective, it’s a great way of trying to get people to try and discover Libon.”
Libon is a fascinating play for Orange. In many ways it competes directly with the carrier group’s traditional SMS and voice services, but it gives Orange a chance to find new customers outside its various markets — according to Corbett, only 20 percent of Libon users are actually Orange subscribers. As for customers within those markets, Orange carriers have the option to use Libon as a tool for taking on cheap international calling services.
Referring to Orange’s French youth brand, Sosh, Corbett said this was proving to be a lucrative strategy. Sosh offers a Libon-based international calling package that lets users pay just €5 ($6.86) a month to make calls to 40 countries.
“By lowering the price instead of just getting high-volume users substituting their traffic, they’re getting people who never thought of using their mobile for international calls, because they’re too expensive,” Corbett said. “They’ve grown their international traffic hugely through the use of Libon. It’s very profitable.”
Corbett claimed Orange had found that customers who use Libon for voice calls have reduced their use of other “over-the-top” (OTT) players such as Viber by 79 percent. “Our strategy is to use the OTT approach integrated with our telco offering to re-intermediate services with our users,” he said.
Corbett also updated me on Libon’s integration with the questionable telco-industry Joyn scheme, which is supposed to give carriers a common way to battle OTT rivals such as WhatsApp and Viber, but which is seeing very patchy and tardy rollouts. When we last spoke in August, Libon-Joyn integration was planned; now it’s live in Slovakia, Romania and Luxembourg.
“From Orange’s perspective, our rich communications service is Libon, the only brand that we use,” he explained. “We’re using Joyn as a technology for interoperability where it exists. Where there is no Joyn, then Libon just relies on its own technology…We found a way to roll out the service and bring the benefits without waiting for networks to integrate [Joyn]. As it rolls out, Libon auto-configures to take advantage of it.”
I must say, although I’ve been a deep skeptic about telcos having the imagination and will to take on the OTT threat – which does after all mean re-evaluating longstanding revenue models — it does sound as if Orange is making real progress in this regard. Telefonica, by way of comparison, ended up scrapping its similar Tu Me app, which was far less integrated with its other services.
The question, however, is whether tactics such as the viral move revealed today end up making significant inroads in the rise of those suddenly very valuable rivals, or whether the telcos are just doomed to be carriers of others’ data. The smart money says the latter, but Orange is certainly fighting that outcome with spirit and smarts.