NTT DoCoMo finally needs Microsoft
NTT DoCoMo finally needs Microsoft

NTT DoCoMo finally needs Microsoft

NTT DoCoMo finally needs Microsoft

One of WWJ’s long-time favorite mobile & tech media sites, The, posted an item last week that stopped us short: “DoCoMo deal opens i-Mode world to Windows Media.”

The point that caught us was right in the opening graf (see if it grabs you too):

“Japanese giant NTT DoCoMo, a long standing Microsoft partner in the world of mobile entertainment, is to port Windows Media DRM (digital rights management) to its 3G handsets, allowing for content to be moved between phones and PCs, and bypassing the Open Mobile Alliance DRM.”“With Windows Media technologies on all NTT DoCoMo’s FOMA 3G handsets — presumably including the non-Windows models — Microsoft gains access to a large customer base, but even more interesting is that the agreement will see the alliance of partners in DoCoMo’s i-mode mobile Internet platform also looking to build Microsoft DRM into their devices.

Like us, you probably didn’t need the red ink to highlight this article’s boggling assertion that NTT DoCoMo is a “long standing” Microsoft partner; while the two tech giants may not exactly hate each other, there’s been been little love lost as Microsoft has failed at every step of i-mode’s growth to establish any significant foothold in mobile in Japan. I can’t think of another tech-giant relationship that has gone on longer and frostier with less cooperation than that between DoCoMo, owner of i-mode, the world’s most successful mobile platform, and Microsoft, planet Earth’s No. 1 software powerhouse who is keenly trying to evolve from a PC-centric company to a mobile and unwired-device OS vendor.

To get a sense of how badly Big D has shut Bill’s company out of mobile Japan, recall past DoCoMo press releases on the company’s choices of Symbian and Linux for mobile OS development (here and here) and public statements wherein the company made it explicitly clear that they don’t like Microsoft. At the 2003 year-end press conference, WWJ video here, a time when FOMA was just starting to take off, then-CEO Tachikawa (now head of the Japan Space Agency) stated: “Simply speaking, Microsoft is not offering an open standard and an open-minded approach” and that DoCoMo “prefers Symbian and possibly Linux for 3G OS.” Little has changed to this day.

The Register article was based on an item from Rethink Research (a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm)’s “Wireless Watch” newsletter (… catchy title! — Ed.), which in turn seems based on an 11 May DoCoMo press release: “NTT DoCoMo Collaborates with Microsoft to Add Windows Media Technologies to 3G FOMA Handsets.”

According to the original DoCoMo release, the incorporation of Windows Media technologies (Windows Media Player 10 and WMDRM-PD, Windows Media DRM – Portable Device) will “enable NTT DoCoMo handsets to play music downloaded to a PC from more than 100 online music services around the world, and also support music content ripped from CDs in the highly efficient Windows Media Audio format.”

Thus it appears that the agreement will enable a DoCoMo 3G phone user to download a WMA-format song track via PC (or rip a copy from a CDROM), ‘transcode’ the track using PC software supplied with the phone, and then transfer the coded track to the handset via memory card (details, in Japanese, here — but the graphics illustrate the process if you can’t read kanji). The track can then be played by (only) that phone.

I gather the DRM technology is self-contained in the WM Player embedded in the phone with some type of ID handshake to ensure that the content transferred to the handset has the correct matching code; the only compatible phone mentioned on the carrier’s site so far is the F902iS, to be released shortly; DoCoMo’s F902iS site also notes that both PC and phone will have to have Win Media Player 10.

Note that this type of ‘containment’ service is a virtual clone of the Vodafone KK ‘BB Live’ PC-Phone music download service that has been running since 2004 — except Vodafone uses OMA DRM; the handsets come from Toshiba (dubbed ‘Play-T’).

Also note that the F902iS phone is running a Symbian OS, according to

If all this is correct, then the DoCoMo-Microsoft tie-up could be extremely significant. As Peter White, managing director at Rethink Research pointed out in an email earlier this week, “The real story here is enormous.”

He says that if Microsoft DRM is put onto a Linux or Symbian device, then there is a gateway from the PC to the phone. “At present that can only be achieved on a phone with Microsoft Mobile on it, or using a bridge, commissioned by Microsoft between OMA DRM and Windows Media DRM, [and] written by CoreMedia. Free movement between PC and the majority of handsets would mean that the default DRM *not* on a PC would become OMA DRM, even on other PCs, PDAs, and perhaps even set-tops.”

To this I would add that the tie-up also gives Microsoft a small but significant leg-up into Japan’s mobile content space, where their player and DRM technology has been — like their OS — screamingly absent.

The deal also helps DoCoMo. The 3G giant has dropped the ball when it comes to mobile music, and since December 2002, KDDI/au has been eating everyone’s soba with the huge success of the Chaku Uta, Chaku Uta Full, and Chaku Motion music and music-video download services. In this case, DRM is provided by the fact that the phones are engineered to disallow transfer of the downloaded music files, which can only arrive on the handset as paid-for content via the network.

DoCoMo has been repeatedly late to market with their own Chaku Uta (partial audio clip) service, having only started with the 900i-series in spring 2004; Chaku Uta Full (real, full music tracks) are arriving only now, with the “9”-series FOMA phones.

They need a boost; however, being late to market has given them the advantage of seeing how the market has developed and the 3G mobile music business in Japan has evolved into a music publisher’s business; the lion’s share of revenues and profits are going to the music labels and not to the carrier nor the individual content aggregator sites.

Why spend huge sums to compete directly with a similar, mobile-network-only service? If they can enable FOMA users to conveniently access 3rd party PC Web music providers and transfer tracks (with DRM) to the phone via memory card, they avoid up-front music platform investment costs, provide a huge library all at once, and benefit from a non-3G-network service which helps keep their FOMA network from getting clogged up with massive, multiple flat-rate downloads.

In other words, NTT DoCoMo — for the first time ever — needs Microsoft.

You might ask: Why not partner with a vendor whose DRM is built on OMA DRM standards, and avoid venturing into the belly of the beast? Because many (most?) PC Web music download services don’t use OMA DRM.

But overall, the deal is probably bigger for Microsoft.

Microsoft’s telecoms group is pushing something called ‘Connected Services Framework’ as a way to offer multiple services with the same toolset — a little like an application layer for IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). This could lead to cooperation with any partner on hosted email, hosted VoIP, hosted messaging etc. “This has helped them get into many telcos both in Europe and China, mostly through wireline telcos,” said Peter White.

He adds that Redmond’s telco group has “a good story” and once in, “it can start a dialog with companies that used to hate Microsoft, which was once all of the cellcos.”

Looks like Big D is finally finding at least a little love for Big M.

— Daniel Scuka