Getting Crazy With the Keitai

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2000

by Chieko Tashiro

SINCE THE I-MODE SERVICE BEGAN in February 1999, NTT DoCoMo's business model has been regarded as one of the most powerful and fastest-growing anywhere. Within only a year, more than 800 official sites were made for i-mode surfers, offering a variety of content and services. It's not just DoCoMo, of course: all of Japan's wireless service providers have rosy things to report. J-Phone, for example, says it's looking forward to a significant revenue jump from the previous year and will invest ¥100 billion in new equipment. Meanwhile, several companies have been providing innovative new services using the cell phone: Pro Tect has developed a system for using wireless phones to pay for vending machine purchases. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will market a cellphone-controlled air conditioner. According to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the number of mobile phone subscribers has gone up to 52.8 million as of the end of May.

But what are those millions of users really wanting to do with their cell phones?

Let's take an up-close look at NTT DoCoMo's consolidated financial statement for the fiscal year to March 31. The company had total revenues of ¥3.7 trillion -- ¥2.9 trillion came from voice, and only ¥38.5 billion came from data communication related to the i-mode service, and we can guess the bulk of that was email. As of the end of June, only 1.8 million of the 12.4 million i-mode subscribers surf the small screen. J-Phone had 8.7 million subscribers as of the end of June, and only 1.7 million subscribed to its J-Sky service. J-Phone recorded about 50 percent of its revenues from nonvoice applications, but it doesn't show on its sheets how much of that came from Web surfing.

The killer app of wireless, in other words, is not Web surfing. It's voice. According to InfoCom Research, only 26.4 percent of users buy i-mode phones to view home pages. Teens tend to use email; twentysomethings are mostly in it for the voice usage. Broken down by sexes, men tend to buy more for voice, women more for email. So how many people are really surfing the wireless Web? And, more to the point, how often? Further research needs to take into account the frequency of Web usage. Someone might try it out once at first, but that does not a small-screen surfer make. And as for operating air conditioners and paying for sodas in vending machines with cell phones ... we'll let you make the call, but how hard is it to drop a few coins or push a temperature button?

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