Hong Kong-made mobile chat app Maaii wants to become the Skype of Asia

Maaii, a newcomer to the mobile chat market, has quickly won over fans in Southeast Asia thanks to smart marketing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 5:21pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 5:21pm

The mobile chat market may be a crowded one, but Hong Kong newcomer Maaii has quickly carved a comfortable niche for itself, especially after generating a considerable buzz in Southeast Asia.

Founded in 2011, Maaii’s success, as well as its familiar Skype-like appearance, is no surprise considering that the Kowloon Bay-based company's chief strategy officer is Chris Lewis, former head of Skype Asia.

“Maaii is not really trying to stand as a competitor against major players like Line, Viber or WeChat, which are looking to build themselves into larger social platforms,” Lewis said in interviews with Tech in Asia. “What the company is interested in is being the best voice app possible – as that is the DNA of the company.”

Keeping this sentiment in mind, Maaii forgoes the status updates, games, and other bells and whistles that have been integrated into chat programs like WeChat and Line, and focuses instead on allowing users to make free and low cost phone calls. With video functionality, group chats and instant messaging all touted as key features, Maaii’s closest comparisons are Skype and Viber, but the newcomer has distinguished itself from the pack by implementing additional features in its 2.2 release, which hit the Apple and Google Play stores on 18 October.

These features include sound effects which can be played in chats, short six-second “video caller IDs” which can be used to identify contacts as opposed to a more traditional name and picture, and improved Facebook integration.

Perhaps more interesting than these features, however, are Maaii’s emphasis on appealing to Southeast Asian countries, where the app ironically boasts more users than it does in its birthplace of Hong Kong.

Already available in Thai, Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese, Maaii’s warm welcome in these developing markets is largely due to the lack of a widely used popular competitor that has specifically targeted local users.

Thailand boasted 84 million mobile subscribers in 2013, a number that currently exceeds the country’s population of 67 million. Despite these numbers, however, Thai language settings are not yet available on the mobile version of Skype for Android devices – the preferred platform of Thai smartphone buyers, winning 70 percent market share in 2012.

In contrast, Maaii acquired 500,000 Thailand users in July within 24-hours of introducing Thai language settings. The company has also utilized region-specific Facebook promotional ads to appeal to the country's 14.6 million Facebook users, and Maaii has since become the number one downloaded mobile app on Thailand's Apple and Google Play stores.

Lewis has not specifically commented on Maii's future plans for expansion into Hong Kong or other markets, and has only said that “iterating quickly, delivering new experiences, and tightening users’ networks” are all key strategies for the company's continual success.

Recent press releases, however, state that Maii “is fortifying its user base in the Middle East,” and in July, over 300,000 Saudi Arabia users downloaded Maii in only seven days, joining other user populations in Egypt, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

With many popular video chat apps, including Skype and Viber, banned in parts of the Middle East as a casualty of laws intended to favour local telecommunications companies, Maii seems primed to repeat its already considerable success in another developing market.