Hello Kitty's Revenge
Early this year, there was some comment in the open press concluding that the US was the world’s leading source of wireless innovation and technology expertise (“Europe Had Decisive Wireless Lead, But Lost It to US With Poor Moves”). Well, the good news is that finding some of those smaller, innovative creators of made-right-here-in-Japan, ready-to-be-exported mobile technology is getting an awful lot easier. We spent yesterday at Sun’s JavaOne conference in Yokohama, and there was an interesting line-up of companies displaying their wares on the showroom floor.
“Europe Had Decisive Wireless Lead, But Lost It to US With Poor Moves,” By DAVID PRINGLE, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, Feb. 21, 2002. The story read in part:
To add insult to injury, the U.S. has spawned just about the only wireless Internet startup to have turned itself into a major global company — California’s Openwave Systems Inc., which supplies the Internet browser used by most of the world’s mobile-phone makers.
Jeff Funk, professor at Kobe University’s school of business and author of “The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected,” was quick to respond to the WSJ story and emailed the writer to point out that, Ahem!, Japan had already built up a commanding lead in wireless Internet technology (Hello? Remember i-mode and its then 31 million happy users…?) even as Europe’s WAP 1.0 technology was crashing and burning. Ironically, WAP was the technology spawn of Openwave (and others) — the company held up as a shining example of America’s lead (although WAP failed not because of the technology itself but because of how it was implemented and marketed).
At the time, Jeff asked me to comment on the story, and I also recall discussing the issue with others. True enough, there was a general feeling in the air that, while i-mode was a classy and unique, made-in-Japan business model, the underlying technology — HTTP, TCP/IP, HTML, etc. — was all foreign (specifically, largely American) in origin. Others I spoke to took Japan to task for producing massive amounts of little more than highly cultural-specific and non-exportable content — derisively referred to as “Hello Kitty downloads.”
I have to admit: at the time, it was a little tough to find good examples of smaller, genkier **Japanese** technology companies that were creating really cool software and applications (not just cHTML-formatted content) on wireless to respond to the WSJ story and other critics.
Sure, the i-mode, J-Sky, and EZweb portals themselves were complex marvels of engineering, but they were built (and are still maintained) with lots of foreign help (Logica from the UK, Openwave — again — from Redwood City, California, etc.) or with the help of super-large domestic SI houses like NEC, Fujitsu, and others which, while solid producers of quality software, can hardly be accused of excessive liveliness or of exporting wireless expertise to the rest of the world.
Well, the good news is that finding some of those smaller, innovative creators of made-right-here-in-Japan, ready-to-be-exported mobile technology is getting an awful lot easier. We spent yesterday at Sun’s JavaOne conference in Yokohama, and there was an interesting line-up of companies displaying their wares on the showroom floor.
First, there was NTT DoCoMo itself which, while not exactly a good example of a “small” company, certainly is a made-in-Japan mobile success story that is shaking up markets elsewhere. They’ve proven able to compete in multiple markets with the world’s best and brightest carriers and to serve as a source of funding and heavy-duty engineering know-how to smaller vendors and system integrators. When the carrier’s ongoing projects — IR-based P2P e-commerce, c-mode vending machine control, and multimedia broadcast (see news items below) — attain maturity, we bet Big D will take pains to boost them into overseas markets and that there will be little competition waiting.
Next, we saw HI Corp., creator of the Mascot Capsule 3D graphics rendering engine deployed on J-Phone since last year and on DoCoMo since May. Graham Robinson, manager of the mascot Capsule team, said that they are focusing on getting the software commercialized overseas, and specifically mentioned how their year-long commercial track record in Japan offers a real advantage over others who may have similar technology but not commercial deployment to point to.
Zentek, maker of what some feel to be the best i-mode emulator, was also there, and was showcasing their new emulators for J-Phone and KDDI (Zentek already makes the emulator software offered for download under the two carriers’ brand names from their J-Sky and EZweb developer sites). Zentek also had English-language brochures ready to hand out and have recently completed an English website; overseas expansion obviously may be in the cards.
Other mobile software-focused firms were there including Flexfirm (content tools), Studio Bulldog Terrier (developer tools), and G-Mode (Java games and other apps).
While the absolute numbers are still small, there’s some interesting technology coming out of these companies and they’re proving able to take made-in-the-US Java technology and rework it into products customised for Japan’s wireless market and exportable to elsewhere. Also, not present at JavaOne, LinkEvolution (IR communications), Access (microbrowser now on Palm), Office Noa (video codecs), and Net Village and CRL (Java mail) come to mind.
All in all, we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen developing specifically with Java (pun intended) and with mobile software technology in general in Japan this year, and we predict that 2003 will see at least several Japan firms moving overseas.
So take that, all you ill-informed, WSJ-article-writing, US-centric, Hello Kitty-obsessed critics. 😉
— Daniel Scuka