[SINGAPORE] Earlier this year, SingTel came breathtakingly close to launching its very own hybrid of WhatsApp and Viber - an app called LoopMe. Its official launch was eventually canned, but not before it was held up for months after a legal brawl broke out between two firms that had worked on it.
SingTel has declined to comment on LoopMe, but app stores have a record of LoopMe being offered for free as an "all-in-one communications app" by SingTel Idea Factory Pte Ltd earlier this year. The app has since been removed from the iTunes and Google Play stores.
The app, which saw a low-key soft launch earlier in the year, was slated for a global launch on Aug 15, according to court documents filed by the app's developer. Just two weeks before that, however, LoopMe was dragged into a legal crossfire between the developer and another firm.
The Business Times understands that the launch of the app has since been scrapped entirely for reasons that are unclear. SingTel declined to comment.
In July, T-Jat - an Israeli start-up that had worked on LoopMe - launched a petition in the US District Court, naming the app developer - Amdocs - and SingTel as respondents.
In the petition, T-Jat asked the court for a temporary restraining order against the Aug 15 launch of the LoopMe app, alleging a breach in the licensing agreement between T-Jat and Amdocs for the former's proprietary technology. Amdocs denies breaching the licensing agreements.
The judge denied T-Jat's request and the Israeli firm filed an amended petition at the end of August. The dispute has since been moved into arbitration, with which SingTel is not involved. Presently, T-Jat has no substantive claim against SingTel, the telco told BT.
The LoopMe launch was postponed at least twice, court documents show.
A memorandum filed by Amdocs' lawyers in September said: "As the court is aware, SingTel's global launch of the LoopMe app was initially scheduled for August 15 and was delayed to September 15 after this action was filed."
For reasons that were not mentioned, SingTel decided to postpone the launch of the LoopMe app yet again - this time to Nov 15 - letters from SingTel's and Amdocs' lawyers to the court in early September showed, before the launch was eventually cancelled.
Had LoopMe been launched, it would have been one of the most ambitious messaging apps attempted by a telco in a space dominated by dedicated apps, such as WhatsApp, Line and KakaoTalk. According to its description in app stores, LoopMe would have allowed users to exchange messages, files and photos, as well as make voice and video calls for free, globally.
T-Jat's July filing claimed that SingTel had been exploring the idea of a mobile messaging tool since at least 2009, with a project called "FUSE".
The question of what to do about over-the-top (OTT) rivals such as WhatsApp and Viber - which are eating into telco revenue - has long plagued the industry. Among telcos, the jury is out on whether they would be better off partnering an existing OTT player or wading into uncharted territory and building their own app.
In an interview with BT last year, SingTel Group CEO Chua Sock Koong indicated the telco's interest in beating such apps at their own game, saying that SingTel's offering of its own voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service was "not unthinkable".
By this year, however, it is possible that SingTel had developed second thoughts about LoopMe or had wanted to hedge its bets. In August, it teamed up with WhatsApp in an exclusive partnership for its prepaid customer base, about a week before LoopMe's original launch date.
Telcos that choose combat over cooperation with OTT apps do so at their own peril. Fetion, a messaging app that China Mobile launched in 2007, continues to play second fiddle to behemoth WeChat, while Tu Me, a similar offering from Spanish telco Telefonica, was shuttered after less than two years.
Meanwhile, the OTT industry is growing at a torrid pace. WhatsApp now has 350 million monthly active users, with 50 million of them coming from the last two months alone. As telcos experiment with solutions, they will have to find a winning one fast.