DoCoMo’s recent troubles highlight a fundamental aspect of Japan’s wireless Internet revolution that I haven’t seen discussed much – namely, the sheer improbability of it all. In 1999 and 2000, during the ascendancy of i-mode, headlines and media quotes from interested parties were quick to praise the insight and innovation of those involved in i-mode’s creation, including the famous Enoki-Matsunaga-Natsuno troika as well as sundry network engineers, Internet-savvy marketers, and handset designers both inside DoCoMo and out.
To be certain, i-mode is a very clever business model that makes innovative use of simple, existing technology; the kudos to those who thought it up are well-deserved. And so long as i-mode was on top of the heap, all involved were happy to take the credit.
But the truth is, i-mode’s success has involved more than just a little kismet, luck,and sheer good fortune than anyone has acknowledged. Now that DoCoMo’s wireless brainchild is being attacked on all sides, even president Tachikawa is appealing to the fickle nature of mobile markets in an attempt to explain the mess.
“Only God could have predicted two years ago what has happened to the current telecom market,” said Tachikawa-sensei at a Tokyo news conference in April. And was God – or, perchance, other hands of fate – instrumental in creating i-mode and the wireless Net revolution? Oh no – that was us, thank you very much.
The fact is, time and again, Japan’s mobile Internet gurus have launched wireless dataservices with no more justification than “Gee, I wonder if this will work.”
Look at i-mode itself. I’ve heard Mari Matsunaga say that she thought they’d get maybe “2 million users in ten years.”
When J-Phone’s Sha-mail picture-mail service was launched in November2000, it didn’t even have a brand name; no one suspected that the camera keitai would become the saviour of 2G and such a run-away hit. Only a few months later, when senior managers realized they had a winner on their hands, did someone bother to call the marketing department and say, “Hey – Quick! – We need a name and a campaign!”
Similarly, other well-branded services have been launched with predictions of certain gold, only to whither on the vine due to lack of any notable commercial success. DoCoMo’s M-Stage audio and video media services are good examples of this; look, too, at detachable cameras, which existed here for the better part of three years on several carriers, and have now disappeared.
Never underestimate the hand of fate in love, war, and the wireless Internet.
And on the topic of launching new services, I attended a Finland-Japan IT Symposium last Friday, and heard Timo Poikolainen, VP for mobile software at Nokia, explain his company’s vision for an open application environment.
He seems quite bullish on the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), and said “this is the first time we’ve had a standards body for mobile services.” He emphasized three necessary elements for achieving the successful creation of mobile services: a client platform, a server platform, and an open development environment (Hmmmm…. sounds a lot like Java in Japan).
Afterwards I asked him, who, in the battle to control standards, would be the first big player to give way? In other words, which big wireless software player would say “OK- we will concede to another company so long as we can achieve interoperability.”
Poikolainen surprised me with his answer, to wit: “We will.” His willingness to give ground seems genuine based on the level of frustration that Nokia, and others, I guess, are experiencing in trying to create open services. “We’ve reached a fairly firm conclusion that we need interoperability.” He says that when this is achieved, competition can take place in the service definition and delivery layer, while players cooperate in the service platform layer.
Jun Tajima, managing director for DoCoMo’s Global Business Department, appeared to agree. “We would like to have unified standards. We would [be willing to] standardize certain portions of i-mode,” he said, but added, “but not [all of it]. “Hmmmm… Maybe competition in the service platform layer isn’t as dead as Poikolainen might wish.
Finally, Kiyoshi Mori, director-general in the International Affairs Dept. of the telecoms ministry, offered some eloquent observations in English (surprising for a bureaucrat) on Japan’s 3G policies.
I asked him if the commercial troubles bedeviling 3G in Europe have affected his ministry’s views on 3G deployment and policy (which remain quite bullish). He said, “We cannot say there will be no influence, but despite [troubles in Europe] we probably have to move forward. Technology does not allow us to pause. There may be a psychological impact, but we hope there will be no practical impact.”
He finished with a joke: “I heard the ’3G’ really stands for ‘girls,’ ‘games,’ and ‘gambling’.” With carriers everywhere desperately trying to pay for 3G and new technology investment, his quip may not be too far from the truth.
– Daniel Scuka
PS. Twice in the past two weeks my damn DoCoMo phone dropped calls! In Chiba, near Kisarazu, two Saturdays ago, my P209iS i-mode handset was out of contact; a friend’s DDI Pocket PHS model would just barely connect while another KDDI/au celly was “three bars genki” and surfing at full speed… Grrrr… Then on Friday at the Finland-Japan IT event, at the Japanese Government Conference Building in Mita-ku (about as downtown as you can get and a mere several kilometers from NTT DoCoMo HQ), my celly choked again… nearby KDDI users were happily chatting away… Grrrr… again….