Are Walled Gardens Such a Bad Thing?

An October 2000 article seems to take issue with NTT DoCoMo offering "walled garden" service. The article says that without open Internet access, the future of wireless is limited. I propose the exact opposite: i-mode's success happened specifically because NTT DoCoMo took an AOL approach and started i-mode by offering a limited number of pre-selected, quality contents. Compare i-mode's success at gathering users for pay content to the rest of the Internet's ability to do so.

Furthermore, it is in no way curious that "very little mention of 'the Internet' is made in any of the operators' marketing campaigns." Even a cursory read of The I-Mode Incident by Mari Matsunaga (in charge of content for the launch of i-mode) will illustrate that i-mode was never about the wireless Internet, it was about providing a service as convenient and useful as a concierge, and as easy and as fun to use as a videogame or email.

The greatest misconception about i-mode is that it's a technology protocol or a wireless Internet implementation, when it is nothing more than service.

However, i-mode has evolved and, as mentioned in the article, nearly 50 percent of the contents accessed via i-mode are in fact not official contents on the i-mode gateway, but unofficial sites out on the Internet, accessed by typing in the URL or clicking a link in an email or page. Yet hardly any of the revenue generated on the wireless Web comes from these unofficial sites. I argue that it is not, in fact, "in everyone's interests to offer as much content as possible to as many surfers who wish to access it." What most non-Asian wireless players fail to realize is that replicating the free-for-all mess that is the Internet on wireless is in no way a recipe for success. Wireless services are successful because they are relevant and timely, not deep and all encompassing like the Internet. It is quick and simple to find the information you want on i-mode, and therefore it is worth paying for. I do agree that most current operator's attempts to vertically control the entire wireless experience, from the handset to the content to the billing, is a recipe for failure. However considering the fact that, for example, over 150 banks have services available as official sites via the i-mode menu, the "control" that DoCoMo has over its gateway is more in the interests of users than most other operators' attempts to control their own gateways.

I also find it ironic that core member of the WAP Forum (Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola) were unable to follow their very own proposed standards, and so most existing WAP phones render WML and WAP contents in very different ways. However in Japan, every i-mode phone renders i-mode contents in nearly exactly the same way. Whether the phone is from Fujitsu, Panasonic, Sony, or any of the other major handset maker, it can be relied on to work with all official i-mode content and most unofficial content. And while the cellular network (PDC-P) that i-mode currently runs on is proprietary, since it's just a service model, an i-mode-like service can be offered on any network, even via WAP on GSM.

In closing, the article states "i-mode is a special case -- it managed to take off only because Internet diffusion was pathetically low to begin with." Well, most of the world still does not have Internet connectivity via a PC, but those users will be a very large part of the projected billion wireless handset users in 2003. Consider, for example, that most fixed Internet users' complaints about wireless include "the screen is too small to read" and "the keyboard is too small to type on." However, for a user who has never used a QWERTY keyboard or read email on a 21-inch monitor, these arguments are irrelevant, as millions of mobile users around the world tap out billions of SMS and mobile email messages a day. The article goes on: "Competition and customer demand for open access will eventually prevail." While this may be true for the wired Internet, there's no guarantee it's true for mobile services. According the 11 million (and growing at 50,000 a day!) users on i-mode, the key to a successful mobile data service is: quality content, ease-of-use, and a simple and reasonable billing scheme. I think the biggest impediment to launching successful wireless services is not the walls around operators' gardens, but the blinders on their eyes.

Renfield Kuroda