Language Barrier? None We Can See

Back to Contents of Issue: March 2001

As i-mode goes international, offering non-Japanese content is a key challenge. Or is it?

by Daniel Scuka

BY THIS FALL, STEIN-SWINGING patrons of Munich's Oktoberfest and well-heeled shoppers in Milan's fashion district will have more than just a blue EU passport in common: they'll also be able to surf the wireless Web on a system that will look an awful lot like NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service. The company announced in mid-January that it had agreed to bring i-mode to some 30 million potential subscribers in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands in partnership with Dutch mobile operator KPN (in which DoCoMo owns a 15 percent stake) and Telecom Italia Mobile. Germany's E-Plus and Belgium's KPN Orange mobile operators will also be involved.

DoCoMo's i-mode service, based on compact HTML (cHTML), has proven to be wildly popular in Japan, and the announcement is considered by many to be yet another, if not the final, nail in WAP's coffin. WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)-based mobile access services have already been deployed in some European countries, but have been widely criticized for slow speeds, a clunky interface, lack of compelling content, and for being too little too late. Ironically, WAP is technically more advanced and robust than i-mode, but it appears that DoCoMo has won the race by bringing its simpler, more widely understood cHTML service to the market first. This started a virtuous cycle of attracting content providers (due to the ease of deploying cHTML-coded mobile Web sites), which in turn boosted the number of new users opting for i-mode due to the increasing amount of content.

imode screenIn Japan, it has been in the wireless operators' interests to provide as much help as possible to content providers and to encourage the kind of content that the subscribers will find useful. Both KDDI and DoCoMo (who have the largest number of subscribers between them) seem to select good examples of applications and services and provide guidelines for developers. "The [Japanese] operators have recognized that no matter who is providing the content, the service is perceived by the customer as being the operator's, and the operators want the customer to have the best possible experience. The operators encourage development in particular areas to ensure that they have good coverage [over] a range of applications," says Alastair France, applications consulting manager at Openwave Systems (Europe) Ltd.

Industry watchers also point to the superior handsets that the Japanese makers provide to DoCoMo and the other operators here, which have far better battery life, resolution, onboard features, and interactivity than anything in Europe (or the US). DoCoMo's move overseas will likely see handset makers like NEC, Sony, Matsushita, and others exporting their tiny pocket rockets en masse for the first time.

But in addition to encouraging the Japanese makers to export their handsets, the challenge for DoCoMo and its European partners will be building a subscriber base as quickly as possible. "DoCoMo will have a single aim overseas," explained one senior executive now retired from NTT who declined to be identified, "and that will be to attract as many new subscribers as fast as possible."

Undoubtedly, i-mode's European (and later, US) growth will be helped by the growing population of third-party content, application, and service providers based overseas that are now trying to master the art of building cHTML-compatible mobile Web sites and services. "We see a trend of non-Japanese companies trying to break into the [Japanese mobile] market as quickly as possible," says Kristian Solberg, information specialist at Logica (UK)'s Wireless Internet Division. Examples include animation developer Animobile (US), Java house Plazmic (Canada), search engine Google (US), software developer Wapprofit (UK), location-based service provider Gravitate (US), synchronization service (US), and mobile data management system provider Extended Systems (US).

Some of these companies already have Japan offices, and they're keenly watching DoCoMo's every overseas move. Since very few of them have any experience with Japanese culture -- business or otherwise -- there is a strong need for market information and research. The technical difficulties these i-mode early-adopters face is immense. There is little technical or specification information available in English, and there are, for example, no good i-mode emulators. "The i-mode market space differs quite substantially from both the European and American mobile markets, so obtaining data on the providers, services, and usage becomes crucial," says Solberg.

Tokyo has seen a growing number of wireless-focused tech and strategy consultants hanging out their shingles. "A few weeks ago, one of our teams sat together every day for an entire week with the CEO and two VPs from a large European company who wanted to jump-start their business as an i-mode service provider," says Gerhard Fasol, principle at Eurotechnology Japan, a Tokyo-based consultancy.

Logica, based in London, is one overseas company that makes i-mode--related technical information available on the Web. Logica's m-World Portal Web site focuses on providing third-party electronic payment information for wireless services.

As DoCoMo readies its legions for foreign expansion, the operator is trying hard to make more information available in English. Its domestic i-mode catalog is available in English (although it's not updated as frequently as the Japanese version), and it has signed up a number of English-language content providers, including CNN, Bloomberg, Citibank, and Northwest Air.

Interestingly, there are non-Japan-based providers of content whose offerings are now accessible via i-mode in this country -- and sometimes they don't even know it. California-based SqueezeNet offers a proprietary Web-based service that will go to any existing Web site, grab some or all of the content, and serve it up to a subscriber's account in simple HTML formatted for small screens. The "squeezed" content can be accessed by Palm-based PDAs and other mobile devices equipped with HTML-compatible browsers. Quite by accident, it can also be accessed on i-mode phones. Walt Arp, CEO of SqueezeNet, says that he "thought" his service was usable on i-mode, but wasn't sure since he didn't know anyone in Japan that he could check with.

Dan Reed, US-based owner of, assembled his own Web site that aggregates the URL links used by AvantGo to serve up Palm- and PocketPC-friendly content from big names like Wired, Salon, and CNN. Though he didn't even know about i-mode, it turns out the content can also be read over DoCoMo's service. Any i-mode user can type in the URLs (or email them to the handset) and access essentially the same content that is provided to users of the AvantGo service. "Actually, I didn't know about the NTT DoCoMo i-mode mobile network -- in fact, I'm not even quite sure on what it is. Is it some type of HTML phone deal?" wrote Reed in an email. After checking out the DoCoMo Web site, he responded with "Wow, this is pretty cool. Grab me some sushi! I love it!"

As overseas interest in i-mode and DoCoMo's move into Europe heats up, there's little doubt that content owners, wireless consultants, and mobile device users worldwide will be keeping watch on what can be accessed, how to access it, and -- most important -- how to turn a profit, whether the content is offered intentionally or not.

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