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Can i-mode Flourish Outside Japan?
Can i-mode Flourish Outside Japan?

I already know what you're thinking: "Not another article about i-mode!" You've probably convinced yourself already that i-mode is some kind of a fluke success story, totally irrelevant to your life. You're sick of seeing articles about it everywhere.

Well, maybe that's what others have tried to convince you of but, as I have discovered, they are wrong, and I'll tell you why.

When I first read about the wild successes of i-mode, nearly 17 million subscribers in less than two years, and the millions of dollars it generates for NTT DoCoMo, I too was a skeptic. Like you, I heard the explanation over and over again: this success is due to giggly teenage girls who like to download animated icons. We were told time and again that it's impossible to translate such a success into other cultures that didn't happen to have millions of these fancy-free gadget-loving teens.

But then, slowly, I began to learn of weaknesses in these arguments. First, I noticed that all of the people who spent most of their time breathlessly repeating these contentions were those who already had a significant investment in i-mode's primary competing technology, WAP. So, what's the reality? Is there something to be learned from Japan that those who back competing technologies worry about? More important, what are these people afraid of and what's at stake?

With every new press release about the "irrelevant" success of i-mode in Japan I began to get the feeling that a gem of truth was being buried under a tidal wave of articles.

I first began to see the light when the cofounders of Neoku, Inc., invited me to help them jump-start a new i-mode project right here in California. This was very surprising to me given that there is not a single i-mode-capable phone in the United States.

So what are these people up to? As it turns out, i-mode phones may be coming to America's shores very soon. NTT DoCoMo is itching to spread i-mode to other countries, which is likely why they poured $9.8 billion to invest in AT&T Wireless. This has led to rampant speculation that in an attempt to duplicate their success in Japan, DoCoMo will bring i-mode to America to compete with WAP.

But is Neoku, in speculating about NTT DoCoMo's plans, taking too much of a risk? Is this anticipation enough to commit time and resources to this new technology? The founders of Neoku, David Fetter and Jay Bain, are veterans of the wireless data industry. They decided (based on the poor performance of wireless data in America) that if the wireless revolution wouldn't come to them, then why not go to where it already was? If so many were enjoying the successes of i-mode in Japan, then an American firm with wireless expertise could also participate. In addition, Neoku is taking a platform-agnostic approach, building infrastructure to serve not just i-mode but also WAP, PDAs, and regular Web browsers. Neoku may not be the first to follow the platform-independent route, but they are among the few to adopt i-mode at such a preliminary stage.

Let's get down to the bottom line: is there anything that i-mode in Japan has that is useful to us in WAP-land?

One basic difference between i-mode and WAP services here in the U.S. is money. If you are an early adopter who owns a WAP-enabled phone, you have probably discovered by now a very serious irritation: you are charged by the minute to use your WAP ser-vice, just like your voice service. Even if you are willing to put up with the painfully slow WAP ser-vice, you have to pay dearly for it. For example, the high cost might encourage you to simply call up your stockbroker in New York rather than wait for your microbrowser to pull down the latest stats.

This ridiculous pricing scheme is the U.S. carriers' most fundamental problem today. Since they're still stuck in the "pay-per-minute" mode of thought, users will be unwilling to gamble high bills to play with data services that are seen as frivolous. This isn't to say that data services are mere toys, but until people can learn to use and rely on these services as they rely on voice today, they won't rush to use these services like their Japanese brethren.

If you want a wireless revolution, then you have to help it along. Carriers were so convinced that consumers would flock to these new services that no one bothered to price them competitively. One notable exception to this pay-by-the-minute regime is AT&T's PocketNet service, which NTT DoCoMo has just invested in.

Another interesting financial twist to the i-mode story is that users can make micropayments to sites in exchange for information and entertainment. Although this does increase the cost of use for the end user, it spurs some basic entrepreneurial instincts in content providers. Since these sites can make more money if they draw more traffic, they have an immediate desire to improve their sites for their users. The more users that they draw, the more money they get. This has led to an incredible amount of innovation. Recently, many of the members of my San Francisco-based wireless group began e-mailing each other, asking about cool WAP applications. Sadly, even on a list filled with over 150 wireless application experts, we could barely come up with half a dozen interesting candidates. This is a far cry from the tens of thousands of sites that are visited on a daily basis in Japan.

While you struggle to surf with your maybe two-line or four-line screen with only black-and-white text and (if you are very lucky) some rudimentary black-and-white images, phones in Japan have screens double that size and come in full and glorious color that in some cases can even support animations. You don't need to be a genius to figure out which phone will be more popular. Not to mention that the i-mode phones all have a special "i" button built in which, when pressed, connects you immediately to the i-mode service. There's nothing like a little user-friendliness to help spur the revolution along.

You may not have trudged your way through the actual WAP specification when it was released, but I will spare you that act of futility. The specification is so open-ended and panders to manufacturers by remaining as backwards-compatible as possible. Quick question: How many soft buttons is a WAP phone required to have? Answer: As many as the manufacturers want. How many lines does the screen have to be? As many lines as the manufacturer wants. Pretty soon the pattern becomes apparent. WAP is designed with corporate profits, not usability, in mind. Even as you read this article, committees are hammering out WAP 2.0 specifications to compete with i-mode technology. Nothing like a little competition to spice things up.

So What? Despite these advantages, does this necessarily translate to runaway success of i-mode technology in current WAP-centric countries? Perhaps there are some advantages that NTT DoCoMo enjoyed that cannot be replicated in foreign markets: namely, the very close relationship that DoCoMo has with handset manufacturers. Perhaps AT&T Wireless will not undertake i-mode at all. Or as David Fetter of Neoku pointed out, in Japan landline phones are so expensive that wireless access ends up being cheaper for many people.

Because WAP adoption has been so dismal in the U.S., there's a lot of room for competitors to trample on it: even if the success of i-mode in the U.S. were only a fraction of its success in Japan, it would be many times more popular than WAP. What does this mean for you? Perhaps you'll continue to sit on the sidelines waiting to see who will come out on top in the world of wireless data protocols. However, there are more visionary organizations out there, such as Neoku, that are banking on a different future than the pathetic present we have now, and they are not alone.

About Ori Neidich
Ori S. Neidich, cofounder and chairman of the San Francisco Wireless Data Group, has been playing with wireless data ever since he figured out how to get his Kenwood handheld dual-band amateur radio to send a maximum of six alphanumeric characters…back in 1993.

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