Supplying New Ideas: Wireless Lights Up

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2000

by Daniel Scuka

The rise of the digital economy has utterly transformed society and promises far greater potential than the revolution based on steam and capitalism that started in the West some 250 years ago. Back then, the Industrial Revolution's radical economic remodeling gave rise to new businesses and technologies. Likewise, the wired Internet has spawned industries, companies, business processes, and skill sets -- even job titles -- that didn't exist 10 years ago.

In Japan, another digital transformation is about to occur, only this time it's happening on the wireless Internet, and the opportunities for new players are even more impressive. I covered Japan's wireless revolution in our June cover story, entitled "Unwired: Japan Has the Future in Its Pocket." Reader response to the article has been tremendous, but I knew immediately upon finishing it that a follow-up was needed, one that focused on the ideas, ventures, and opportunities giving this nation's wireless boom its explosiveness. In the not-too-distant future, there will be companies here (many of which exist now only as two-page summaries in some VC's in-basket) targeting all flavors of mobile devices with content, applications, and services that will make existing wired Net offerings seem as quaint -- and irrelevant -- as Pong. Join me as I hit the streets of Tokyo to learn more about them.

Burke
Burke: mobile video evangelist.
STEPHEN BURKE, 41-YEAR-OLD HEAD OF Packet Video's new Tokyo office, leans across the table and shows me his iPaq handheld computer. I haven't used one before, so I'm not too sure what to look at at first, but I notice that he's deftly tapped several icons in succession. Next, he hands me the device. "OK, I've just logged on to mopera," he informs me, referring to NTT DoCoMo's combo wireless network-and-ISP service that can be accessed by PHS phones and laptop wireless cards. "Now, tap here," says Burke, handing me the stylus; it's clear he's enjoying this demo. I do as I'm told, and in a few moments, I'm watching crystal-clear -- if somewhat small -- TV-quality streaming video images dance across the iPaq's screen. "That's coming at us from the Packet Video servers in San Diego," explains Burke with just a hint of excitement in his voice, "and we connected at 48 Kbps. NTT and DDI both operate 64 Kbps networks, so there's still lots of bandwidth to spare. When cellphones comply with the new industry video standard [MPEG 4] next year, we can do the same on those devices as well."

I'm impressed. If this is the future of wireless content in Japan, I just decided that I like it.

Together with a growing collection of new mobile players, Packet Video is in the vanguard of firms helping to create an entirely new industry around Japan's booming wireless networks. These companies all have at least one aim in common: to help make the provision of content, applications, and services via wireless networks into profit-making businesses. They're in Japan because this nation is ground zero for the biggest and baddest wireless Internet revolution the world has ever seen. Consider the numbers. As of August, there were some 17 million Internet-enabled cellphone subscribers in Japan, and that number was growing by more than 550,000 per week. A sumo-sized percentage of subscribers are opting for NTT DoCoMo's i-mode mobile access service, but competing mobile services EZWeb (offered by au -- the new mobile arm of telco KDDI), J-Sky (offered by J-Phone), and --H" (offered by DDI Pocket) are enjoying steady growth. A quick scan of the headlines here reveals that major global players are targeting Japan's lucrative mobile demographic, with new tie-ups, joint ventures, technology development, and service offerings being announced almost daily. In the past several months, Sanwa Bank, Sakura Bank, AOL Japan, Palm Computing KK, Disney, NTT DoCoMo, Intel, Mitsui, Seiko Epson, Softbank, and Sony have all announced new or enhanced initiatives relating to content, services, or applications for the mobile Internet (see the sidebar).

At the same time, cellphone handset development is booming, and the big Japanese manufacturers (NEC, Sanyo, Kyocera, Sony, Panasonic) together with Nokia and Ericsson are now producing models with color screens, IR connectivity, and 300-hour-plus battery lifetimes that weigh in at about 70 grams, or just a little more than half a Palm V.

For the terminal manufacturers, boosting consumer demand for their cellphones is one way to increased revenues, yet their customers are the network operators, not the end-user. As a result, they are faced with a situation not unlike pushing on a rope. Nokia for one, has set up its own i-mode Web site in an attempt to boost usage and directly communicate with Nokia customers. "There's plenty of money being made here," says Monty Mackenzie, a business development manager at Nokia Japan, "and I think that Japan Telecom, DoCoMo, and KDDI are trying to make the greatest opportunity both for themselves and for the content providers, because it does need to be a win-win-win situation."

Ericsson is another large manufacturer actively trying to boost content, services, and applications in Japan, and it has set up a local Web site for mobile application developers. "We very much need to enable local content and applications," says Stefan Karlsson, a VP for marketing and sales at Ericsson.

JAPAN'S MAJOR MOBILE NET ACCESS SERVICES
Operator Service NameNo. of SitesNo. of Subscribers
NTT DoCoMo Group i-mode 15,000-plus 11,095,000
KDDI au EZWeb 259 3,515,200
J-Phone J-Sky 230-plus 2,679,600
DDI Pocket --H" 150-plus 1,500,000

NOTE:
1. All data current as of August 2000, except for -H", which cites June figures.
2. "No. of Subscribers" refers to the number of Internet-capable cellphone accounts that have been set up by each operator. This says nothing about how many customers actually use the Net services. A recent InfoCom survey reported that some 43 percent of Japanese aged 30-34 who own an Internet-capable cellphone use it for-no surprise here-voice calling. The next most popular usage is email, at about 32.6 percent, and last at 26.4 percent was accessing mobile Web sites (see "Statistics" page 47, September 2000).
3. On October 1, former telcos DDI Corp., IDO, and international carrier KDD Corp. were due to formally merge under the name KDDI, which took over the EZWeb mobile access service under the new au brand in July. Also in July, EZWeb absorbed the substantially similar EZAccess mobile Net service that was offered until then by IDO. To further complicate matters, the TuKa Group -- which also offers the EZWeb service -- will hedge its bets, and some of the regional Tu-Ka companies will merge with KDDI, while others will remain independent. Tu-Ka currently offers EZWeb at 9.6 Kbps, but plans to upgrade this to 28.8 Kbps in Spring 2001.

Sources: Telecommunications Carriers Association (www.tca.or.jp/index-e.html) and DDI Pocket Web site.

As services and applications are launched that require increased computing power at the mobile terminal, PDAs -- which for the most part are open platforms -- will have a chance to grab a bigger piece of the Japan market. Of course, it's a virtuous cycle: once more PDAs become wireless enabled, the range of PDA-focused applications and services that can be run over IP (Internet Protocol)-based mobile networks will increase. "The ability of PDAs to run custom IP-based applications makes them tremendously more useful than just electronic address books," says Keith Moore, a network researcher at the University of Tennessee Computer Science Department.

With PDAs and other wireless-enabled digital devices multiplying fast, a lot of attention is being focused on Java. J-Phone is expected to field a Java-enabled cellphone sometime in 2001, and NTT DoCoMo plans to offer i-mode phones equipped with Java chips (produced with Sun Microsystems) about the time you read this. The J-Phone handset will use JBlend, a real-time OS developed by Aplix that's compatible with Java.

As with any evolving technology, though, programmers and business developers at firms here big and small are finding it tough to get accurate information from the heavyweight players. Java, clearly one of the more attractive technologies, is a sore point. "We are seeing a lot of exciting developments with the Java virtual machine," says Punnamas Vichitkulwongsa, founder and CEO of mobile Net startup Arriya Solutions, "but there is still a lot of misunderstanding and a lack of good information." Vichitkulwongsa isn't just griping, though: he started an English-language i-mode mailing list targeting developers and site designers that presently has some 342 members.

Further, the majority of development options -- Wireless Markup Language for WAP-based EZWeb, Mobile Markup Language for J-Sky, and compact HTML for i-mode -- are highly limiting. These languages lack support for features that Web developers have come to rely on when programming for the large screen and the familiar Netscape-Internet Explorer browser duo. i-mode's cHTML, for example lacks support for features like tables and frames. "cHTML is limited -- we really are stretching the capabilities of it. We're using every feature it has," says Kim Binsted, CEO and cofounder of mobile startup I-Chara.

But in the same way that small, energetic critters can always find a space to wriggle in between the jungle beasts bellying up to drink at the river, the gaps in business space between the mobile heavyweights here present tremendous opportunities for companies that can move fast enough or that are bright enough. As a result, Japan this year is seeing a boom in new, agile mobile players (and older ones, who sense the sea change) aiming to capitalize on the popularity of the mobile Net.

I'm having lunch at Andersen's Caf in Tokyo's Ark Hills with Vichitkulwongsa, asking him about running a mobile Net startup. I'm curious as to why he chose Japan, and what some of the difficulties are in developing for three separate networks. Vichitkulwongsa pauses between bites and explains, "The lifestyle here is very conducive to mobile -- to a mobile society. So far, there aren't too many mobile service competitors, but there will be." He says the market is huge, so, at least at the beginning, there's lots of room for new entrants.

Vichitkulwongsa is clearly a Japanophile. He got his start on the mobile Internet in 1995 with AT&T Wireless, and in 1997 he joined Nippon Ericsson. Now, he's hooked on the market potential. "Japan will be the first place in the world where 3G systems will be commercially available," he says excitedly, adding, "Mobile devices have three unique attributes: they're always on, they're very personal, and they make location-based services possible."

Over coffee, Vichitkulwongsa explains that one of the biggest problems facing any mobile content play here is the differing network standards for delivering the content to users' mobile microbrowsers. "It's very labor-intensive to take existing content and repackage it into three flavors for the three big networks while at the same time developing new mobile-specific content. Some of the current publishers here -- especially magazines and newspapers -- haven't even built a regular Web site yet," he adds with some exasperation.

And where does he see the future of Japan's mobile Web? "Opt-in marketing for mobile will be big," he says. "Think about a financial house or brokerage. They'll go to you and say, 'Tell us your portfolio holdings and we'll give you free stock reports, realtime alerts, and discounts on your trades.' If consumers receive clear benefits in return, they will be willing to share private information. Mobile devices provide the ideal platform for this kind of one-to-one marketing." He also emphasizes that Japan's mobile industry will develop very quickly, a comment echoed by more than a few industry players. "It will change rapidly, and definitely for the better," says Vichitkulwongsa.

Our interview is at an end, and, as if to prove his point about speed, he promptly excuses himself and heads at a clip back to his startup's offices across Roppongi dori. Total time taken for in-depth lunch interview: 30 minutes. It occurs to me that with energy like that, Arriya Solutions should have no trouble getting its seed funding (Vichitkulwongsa earlier admitted he's been his own angel).

mobile
Streaming video: the killer app?
Yet in Vichitkulwongsa's frustration with legacy content owners there lies an opportunity for solution providers like Arriya Solutions. The nine-person startup aims to provide conversion services for content providers wanting to go small-screen. The key to Arriya's service is XML (Extensible Markup Language), expected to become the Esperanto of the wired and wireless Internet. Arriya builds a single version of a client's site that can be accessed by any combination of browsers and devices that a mobile customer might be using. But many wireline and wireless content providers in Japan are still using hard-coded HTML, and XML isn't even on their radar screens yet. Arriya Solutions may have an uphill battle, but it's clearly got an energetic CEO to lead the way.

Arriya Solutions is a prime example of the small startups having life pumped into them by Japan's mobile boom. Interestingly, some companies -- like I-Chara, iKaiwa.com, and Nnet -- are targeting only the mobile Web, bypassing the wired big-screen Web entirely. Although there are no firm estimates on the number of companies or developers targeting mobile, the opportunities are as numerous as they are diverse.

Companies, from single-handed startups to established, 250-person development shops, seem to be seeing the light, if the number of self-proclaimed mobile-interested players in J@pan Inc's quick survey is any indication (see sidebar).

Mark Berman, director of equity research at Credit Suisse First Boston in Tokyo, says the opportunities -- especially in B2B wireless -- are huge, and he points out that, so far, there's only a limited group of players who have the expertise to provide the service. "I'm very excited about B2B," says Berman, "there are lots of opportunities for new players." But he admits that to fully achieve that B2B revolution, the large companies will have to start requiring that their suppliers get "Web-ified." But whether it's B2B or B2C, some new players here are hoping to enable all manner of content, and, specifically, streaming audio and video content -- expected by many to be mobile's killer app.

I'm back with Packet Video's Burke, joined by Alesia Gainer, a bilingual business development exec recently transferred from PV's San Francisco office. Burke is quite persuasive as he describes the multimedia mobile Web of the near future. "By using streaming audio and video, non-traditional companies can now consider themselves to be content producers." He cites US-based ToddlerWatch.com and 411Traffic.com as examples, although equivalent companies exist here. (In an earlier discussion, Packet Video founder Jim Brailen explained that Japan's content providers, no matter who they may be, all fall into three categories: the big brand names like Dentsu; the Net-related producers, who will create the music videos, film trailers, shorts, and the like; and user-generated producers, meaning that in the near future mobile surfers may be transmitting their own high-quality video as easily as they produce email today.)

With the streaming video demo he showed me earlier still playing in the back of my mind, I ask Burke more about MPEG 4. He explains that the new standard will be included in Japanese cellphone handsets from early 2001. Packet Video, a two-year-old startup founded by a couple of ex-Motorola guys, is the first company in the world, he says, to transmit full audio and video over a cellular network with a bandwidth of only 9.6 Kbps to a wireless handheld device. Packet Video specializes in the software that will compress usually bandwidth-hungry audio and video signals -- encoded using MPEG standards -- into data that can be handled at much lower bit rates, the rates typically found on wireless networks (DoCoMo provides i-mode at 9.6 Kbps, for example).

Burke, understandably, is somewhat of an evangelist for the mobile video future. "The whole thrust in the next five years will be in value-added services," he says. "You can't build brand in black and white. Color and high speed are vital." Burke is also looking forward to the arrival of Java on the cellphone -- with increased client-side processing, Packet Video can do even more to provide video on the small screen.

Where does he see opportunities for service or content providers? "For services, think vertical markets," he says. "What about kindergarten watch for moms and dads at work or commuting? And remember we're in Japan. How about logging on post-earthquake from wherever you are to see if there's been any damage at your shop or home? And for content, I'm keen on two- or three-minute music video clips that mobile surfers opt in to receive. Perhaps there's a targeted ad at the end -- this is going to be huge."

It all sounds good, but I'm a little fuzzy on how the small players -- the startups -- can fit into this.

"Small players have to pick their focus," Burke says. "Standards and technology will evolve, but make a 15- to 18-month plan. A small developer might want to affiliate with an established developer, say in the security field."

At this point Gainer chips in: "The advantage that Japan has is the huge volume of mobile users who use their phones to access the Web everyday. And they're willing to pay for content."

I guess the point is, if you can't find opportunity in this space somewhere, you won't find it anywhere.

I thank Burke and Gainer for their time and stop at the Starbucks in the lobby of their Shiroyama Hills building on my way out (there's a Starbucks locator service on i-mode, by the way). Flipping through my notes, it's clear that it's time to talk to some Web designers -- the people who struggle every day to figure out the byzantine plumbing of Japan's mobile Internet.

Hoffmann
Hoffmann: No mobispeak.
After a short train ride into Tokyo's trendy western suburb of Shimokitazawa (what Berkeley is to San Francsico), I finally meet with a pair of real, live mobile developers. Andrea Hoffmann and Juergen Specht, an Ossie and a Wessie, respectively, came to Japan last year specifically because of the mobile opportunities. Hoffmann works at Westcyber, a mobile consulting and publishing venture (where she edits the Mobile Media Japan Newsletter -- see Resources), and Specht works at Nooper.com, a mobile startup with as-yet-to-be-publicized goals. Hoffmann started at Westcyber just several months ago, after helping develop the Machiawase.com site, a party- and meeting-organizing service for keitai and Web users.

The pair are intelligent, soft-spoken, and not at all geeky. I'm impressed with the depth of knowledge required to work in this space. Hoffmann is the more talkative; all I have to do is keep asking the waiter for coffee refills and the story comes pouring out. "The good news is that i-mode and the cHTML specs are open for anyone," she starts off. "The bad news, in no particular order," she adds, "is non-Japanese-speaking developers are isolated; the cellphone interface is still limited -- anything that helps input will be a boon; NTT DoCoMo offers no English-language emulator for i-mode, since the non-Japanese development community is too small; and i-mode lacks an SDK [software development kit]."

It all sounds pretty annoying, but she finishes her tirade with a big grin -- clearly she enjoys the challenge. The point about the lack of development kits or emulators for mobile platforms is not trivial. Other Web designers told me that they have no choice but to go out and buy the actual phones to test their sites. This incurs a not insignificant packet charge fee for the usage, which is passed directly to the client.

"The problems for developers working in mobile are largely self made," Specht offers. "Some say 'impossible' before even starting."

"Updating is hell," adds Hoffmann. "There are four different standards: WAP, HTML, cHTML, and MML. If you're doing a site in both Japanese and English, that's a helluva work matrix."

I query Hoffmann on how companies can establish a business case for building a mobile Web site. Her answer seems to sync with what a number of people have told me -- except for a few big names, which can leverage offline brands, it's still a little too early to expect significant revenues. "The advantage of mobile," says Hoffmann, "is that it's wireless -- that's big. But the user interface -- the screen -- is still small." Specht interjects: "Of course, being wireless, there is a lot of revenue potential for location-based services."

Hoffmann continues: "I guess marketing is the biggest benefit right now. Look at [wine merchant] Enoteca -- they charge you 300 per month just to browse their site." That last bit is spoken with a smile and not a little bemusement. Others have used mobispeak like "deepening the brand" and "adding value to the corporate-customer interface" when describing mobile's not insignificant marketing abilities. I conclude that I definitely prefer developer Hoffmann's direct description.

But which sites really work for mobile? Hoffmann describes one of her favorites. "Look at Warikan-kun, on i-mode," she says. "It's one of the most successful sites, and a good example of what mobile services like i-mode get used for. Many consultants don't realize that such services are so popular." Warikan-kun is a site where after-work groups of imbibing colleagues can easily calculate how much everybody has to pay -- including a discount for people who came later (and presumably drank and ate less) and a proportionately higher charge for the boss. Very handy when the check's a little blurry from one too many glasses of shochu. It occurs to me that this, after all, is the center of Japan's mobile boom -- how people are really using an otherwise unremarkable technology to add some fun and convenience to their daily lives.

One issue wireless developers like Hoffmann and Specht have to think about is the Walled Garden effect, whereby wireless network operators have control over what goes on in their networks -- this is not an issue on the wild and wooly wired Web. (For more on this subject, see last month's "Wireless Walls") Surprisingly, in Japan, the walls are not that high. Vichitkulwongsa explains that, although Internet-capable cellphone terminals sold in Japan do have a fixed gateway address preprogrammed into them, the major operators allow their customers to access sites outside the network. Users of both the EZWeb WAP-based service and the i-mode cHTML-based service can access off-network sites (in fact, this capability is regarded as one reason why the Japanese network operators have been so successful).

In the case of EZWeb, surfers here can access most WAP-formatted sites worldwide, which has the added advantage of giving non-Japanese-reading surfers access to a growing amount of global English-language content. i-mode users can access a growing number a "non-official" offerings, which are cHTML-formatted sites put up by, well, anyone. There is no menu navigation for such sites programmed into the phones' start pages, so, like on the wired Web at large, users must rely on a growing number of independently operated search engines specialized at finding cHTML-formatted Web pages.

While allowing access to outside sites may have been a stroke of marketing genius, there's a healthy dose of self-interest involved. Network operators want to make sure that their customers can access as much content as possible, as long as they always have to start on the phone's default menu page (whose premium content providers are carefully selected by the network operators).

The network operators are more than a little afraid of the power of the content providers -- content is, after all, king, as portals like AOL and Yahoo have proven time and again. Remember, IP access -- what the mobile network operators essentially provide -- is a commodity. "Nobody wants to be in a commodity market if they can help it -- margins are too thin. So vendors quite naturally want to enhance their service by providing access to content that is not available elsewhere," says Moore, adding that "similarly, many information service providers hope to make more money selling enhanced content than they can with advertising." (Although DoCoMo seems to be doing pretty darn well with ad revenue -- see sidebar) The net result is that wireless providers try to sell their service on the basis of enhanced content and discourage use of standards-based applications. "A large provider -- especially one that has [significant] market share -- would prefer a locked-in version of instant messaging to a version that allows its customers to exchange messages with anybody," adds Moore, referring obliquely to AOL's much-criticized blocking of access to its IM service.

One more factor that affects the provision of services over the wireless Net here is the somewhat mundane problem of input, and many industry watchers have written off the cellphone keypad as hopelessly clumsy for anything but the briefest input -- a telephone number perhaps, or a short "I'll be five minutes late" email message. While enhanced cellphone processing capability and voice recognition are widely believed to be the solution of the future, we're not there yet. Nonetheless, there are ways around the input problem. Tegic Communications' T9 intelligent text input system can significantly reduce the number of keystrokes needed to input text, and it can handle a large number of languages, including Japanese. In the final analysis, though, input for Japanese cellphones using the traditional keys may not be such a problem. The five-vowel, nine-consonant Japanese syllabary seems to lend itself quite nicely to input via a celly's nine numeric keys, and Japanese doesn't require punctuation or capital letters. A recent contest in Shibuya produced a winner who could input over 70 words a minute! (See the sidebar)

Nakano
Nakano: Capture the micromoment.
As interviews with several mobile developers, both Japanese and foreign, have shown, the question of the hour is, What works? Conventional wisdom has it that some content and services will work globally -- and remember, it won't be long before many everyday cellphones work (almost) anywhere. These include airline ticketing, travel information, city and country guides -- the kind of information needed anywhere. The other key point is that the information should be instantly useful. "Any service that can be used in a micromoment has the best potential," says Tomomi Nakano, managing director of Nnet, a Tohoku-based mobile application developer (see the Investor item).

Are there opportunities for small service providers? Without a doubt, yes. Ericsson's Karlson says that the giant manufacturer is finding lots of new consumer-based services under development -- and these services are not rocket science requiring legions of developers and massive investment. "We're seeing wake-up calls, paging and messaging, photo transfers, maps, and news and weather," he says. "Videotelephony seems to be coming back again. That was a little amazing. Email is also in demand." It appears that mobile surfers everywhere are looking for value-added services, not general Web browsing. Karlson adds, "It's not so much general browsing that people want, it's specific services." Addressing Japan's mobile future, Karlson adds, "I think that there will be a combination of network operator-based services, third party-based services, and terminal-based services -- there'll be some kind of mix. The more global the service is, the more network operator-oriented its provision will be, the more local the service, the more it will be provided by third-party providers."

Arriya's Vichitkulwongsa says that, contrary to Japan's past success with games on the wired Web, none of the gamemakers have been very successful on the mobile Web yet. Why is this? "It is mainly due to the slow speed of i-mode and WAP," he states. "People are used to playing games on portable devices like Gameboys. Though not networked, they are much faster and interactive. Gamemakers realize this, and instead of focusing too much effort on the current technologies, they are focusing on future technologies like Java (where interactivity can be done on the local client level), and of course 3G."

Ultimately, the exhilaration of working in mobile here and now stems from not knowing which idea will take off, and this generates a tremendous amount of energy and excitement that was last seen just after Netscape released version 2.0 of its browser, and the Web at large took off. Wouldn't it be great to be the founder of a startup that becomes the Amazon or Yahoo of the small screen? Only this time, your site visitors will be accessing you from anywhere, anytime, and at broadband speeds. There's a lot of benefit in being here in Japan at the dawn of the revolution. In researching this article, many people commented on the advantage that first-comers would have over those who follow. "You have to be here," says Stephen Knight, recently a business development manager at iJapan.com. "You have to see how the cellphones are being used."

I'm in the Ebisu offices of Digital Magic Labs, located on the sixth floor of a modest office building situated within a maze of small side streets away from Ebisu station. I got a little lost coming here, but now I'm sitting and speaking with Martin Herlihy, Yuki Tateyama, and Takatomo Sato, all experienced Web designers. DML has offices in Tokyo and Singapore, and the firm works in English, Japanese, and Korean. (Don't underestimate the advantage that native double-byte development gives a Web site. Once it's prepared in an Asian language, it's much easier to render into English than vice versa.) DML has landed a number of large mobile Web site contracts, including a US brokerage looking to offer mobile trading, and the firm includes among its clients FamilyMart, SkyPerfect TV, and FedEx.

I'm curious as to how they've made the transition from wired Web site production to designing for the small screen, a challenge that nearly all Web shops here will have to face at some point. It's quickly apparent that DML has found it tough to convince at least some customers about the wireless Web's merits. Nonetheless, DML has received queries from almost all of their big clients about moving onto mobile, and the firm is enthusiastic about the future. My three interviewees unanimously agree that mobile Web sites are still too difficult to build, and they make the point that such sites must include dynamic content that keeps the user coming back every day. "I think database-driven sites with search capability are a lot more useful (for mobile) because you can sift through large amounts of information and get just what you need right at that moment, where you are," says Herlihy. Mobile customers want to see 'my homepage,' and 'my content,' explains Tateyama, emphasizing that a lot of existing Web content generally doesn't provide any kind of dynamic feedback. This seems to imply that site owners will be looking at building anew from the ground up when they do make the jump to mobile.

I ask the three about how clients are justifying the cost of going mobile. "I think it's hard to look at building a mobile Web site in terms of profitability at this point," says Herlihy, adding, "If you're SkyPerfect TV, no; you're not going to make money off of a mobile-accessible program schedule search engine. But it is a nice thing for your viewers to have. SkyPerfect can highlight the service and tell its customers, 'Hey -- you can find out the baseball schedule on i-mode,' and customers will think, 'This is better than the competition.'"

Also, DML emphasizes to clients -- who are entirely responsible for dealing with the network operators when it comes to obtaining "official" content partner status -- that placement on the mobile network's default screen is vital. "If you're five clicks down, no one will see you," says Herlihy. Another issue for making a business case is the conflicting standards for the three large network operators, which necessitates building and updating three separate sites; many clients choose to go only with i-mode (at least initially) since it has by far the largest user base.

Tweaking content for the small screen is also an important issue, says Herlihy: "I don't want to state the blatantly obvious, but mobile is, well, mobile. How is your content or service going to be useful or helpful to someone who is, literally, walking down the street? If you do solve a problem for the user, maybe your site can become a profit center."

With that, I thank my hosts for their time, take the elevator back to the first floor, and make my way back to Ebisu station, promptly getting lost once again. As I walk along yet another dead-end street, I find myself wishing for a small map -- it wouldn't have to be very big -- that would show me where I was, and which way it was to the station. If it also indicated the nearest convenience store (it's blazing summer hot in Tokyo, and I'd like a cold Pocari Sweat to drink), so much the better. And if the map, or the device that displayed it, could also tell me when the next train departed (so I'd know whether to rush, or to take time for another cold drink), that would, I think, be just great.

As I arrive back at the J@pan Inc offices parched and drenched in sweat, I reckon that DML's Herlihy made a really good point about making the wireless sites useful to someone walking down the sidewalk. Jupiter Japan president Masayuki Nagatake says that Japan could well see the world's highest penetration of mobile broadband Internet services and content. If this includes content like streaming video on a tiny personal screen, or services like how to get to the station, or where to buy a cold drink on a hot day, or other practical solutions to everyday problems, then Japan's going to be a very cool place to live, indeed. And the players trying to make it all happen? They're moving now, and they're moving fast. They're also keeping a close eye on each other. "The biggest problem is trying to go at hyperspeed," says I-Chara's Binsted. "We need to move fast to beat the competition." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

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