Johannesburg - Vodacom’s founding chief executive, Alan Knott-Craig, squirmed in the hot seat yesterday as he took the stand in the South Gauteng High Court to answer questions around the Please Call Me service, 13 years after the idea was handed over to the company.
Yesterday, Knott-Craig contradicted himself in various statements about the Please Call Me service, while being questioned by Cedric Puckrin, counsel for the plaintiff who brought the action seeking recompense from Vodacom.
As he testified, Knott-Craig gave conflicting statements about who the true inventor of Please Call Me was, even undermining the claim in his biography, Second is Nothing, that he masterminded the idea.
By the end of the day Puckrin had succeeded in getting Knott-Craig to admit that Nkosana Makate had invented the concept, which later led to the development and commercialisation of a service allowing prepaid customers without airtime to request a callback.
According to Knott-Craig’s book, he developed the service by chance after observing two security guards trying to communicate in Vodacom’s executive office block. One sent a missed called to the other to attract his attention. However, in court, Knott-Craig claimed that Philip Geissler, the executive for product development, invented the idea because he had attracted Knott-Craig’s attention to the security guards.
Knott-Craig could also not explain why Geissler agreed in an e-mail in 2009 to corroborate Knott-Craig’s version in his book that he was the inventor.
Makate, the plaintiff, approached the high court to compel Vodacom to negotiate with him over reasonable compensation for the idea. In 2000, when Makate disclosed his idea to his superior, Lazarus Muchenje, and Geissler, he insisted on compensation in the form of revenue sharing. Geissler promised to facilitate those negotiations despite the fact that Vodacom did not enter into revenue sharing deals with employees.
While Vodacom moved to commercialise the product, it reneged on the deal to compensate, which was the sweetener that had convinced Makate to submit his idea.
Knott-Craig testified yesterday that neither he nor the Vodacom board, of which he was executive chairman, were ever aware of Geissler’s agreement to compensate Makate. He said this would have been an extraordinary agreement. The board had to provide final approval to see products to market.
Knott-Craig, who was asked about the possibility that Makate was not aware of the delegation of authority required to approve new products and compensation, said that as such he found it inconceivable that Makate, Muchenje and Geissler could have believed revenue sharing to be possible.
Knott-Craig, while giving evidence in the morning, told Vodacom’s counsel Fanie Cilliers that Makate had simply presented an idea with no technical solution. He said the merit was in the technical solution.
But when Puckrin questioned him after lunch, Knott-Craig admitted that Vodacom had implemented Makate’s idea. Puckrin presented evidence that by December 2000 Vodacom had already bought hardware to test the Please Call Me concept on the unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) protocol, and that Knott-Craig had given instruction for urgent implementation after board approval and an e-mail to senior officials describing the product under development. Other suggestions from Makate had included that the service run on USSD and be free to ensure its rapid uptake by subscribers.
“Do you accept this was Mr Makate’s idea?” Puckrin asked.
Knott-Craig said “it would seem this idea was sparked by someone and this idea was sparked by Kenneth Makate”.
Knott-Craig also admitted that he was not aware of MTN ever threatening to sue Vodacom for allegedly stealing Please Call Me, as Geissler had led Makate to believe in 2001. - Business Report