Learning from i-mode



Want a good tech buzz? Then you need to delve into some of the i-mode stuff that's out there. I quickly ripped through most of I-mode Strategy last night and was completely blown away by it. DoCoMo pioneered everything that we're just starting to get our hands on over 3 years ago. It's amazing to see the timelines and to realize how far ahead the Japanese have been in so many areas in mobile technology. I mean, we've all HEARD about it, but to see the details of higher-speed internet access and iAppli Java apps being used by 15 million people *in 2001* and you suddenly really Get It. DoCoMo has been there and been doing that with I-mode for the past several years, yet we're just starting to get that capability now here in Europe and in the U.S. It's a GREAT opportunity to learn.

Here's some links to check out to get yourself up to speed with i-mode:

It's important to remember that i-mode has something that the current services offered don't: an organized way for content providers to get paid. They offered an open platform - not a walled garden - but in order to get onto the "i-mode Top Menu" you needed to have a deal with DoCoMo, who had certain levels of quality that they demanded to keep the basic service level offererings at a decent quality. But even then, content providers go 90% of the revenues for their services. The deal was that DoCoMo would charge a commision and get the benefits from the packet charges and the content providers charged for their services. This lead to phonemenol success. Think Vodafone Live! reaching one million users in 5 months is impressive? I-mode reached that mark in 20 days.

One of the things I found absolutely fascinating in the book was the process in which they chose the original technology. In 1999/2000 they could have elected to use WAP, but chose to develop cHTML because of it's ease of development:

Our objective in using HTML was clear: we wanted as many service providers as possible to provide content on i-mode. Enormous amounts of content were already available on the Internet. If i-mode also used HTML, it would take those already providing content on the Internet only a little extra work to make the few modifications needed to send that content to i-mode subscribers.

What was important to bear in mind was that the population of people using HTML to produce Web content was already large. As anyone who has done so will agree, knowing a little HTML makes it possible to produce i-mode content with ease. Using HTML, then, dramatically lowered the barriers to producing i-mode content.

Not everyone agreed with that decision. Some argued that HTML is too inefficient for wireless transmissions or that technically superior choices existed.

In fact at the time, Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola, the top three manufacturers of mobile phones in Europe and the United States were central in proposing an alternative to HTML, the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)...

Adopting WML would have made more work for our service providers, and, we thought, we would be unable to attract as much content as we wished. With WML, service providers would have had to invest twice - in their existing Internet sites and in the new i-mode format. In addition to HTML programmers to mark up the content and their existing Web servers using HTML, they would have had to line up servers and programmers for WML. Do you think they would have leaped at the chance?

In fact while considering whether to use HTML or WML, I went to the United States with some representatives of the manufacturers. We had heard that AT&T Wireless had begun offering PocketNet, an information service for mobile phone users, and we wanted to try it out for ourselves.

The AT&T Wireless Service used what it called HDML, a language based on WML developed by a US startup company. In any case, it too is utterly different from HTML as we know it on the Internet.

When we tried it out, we found that the only items on the PocketNet service menu were ways to check whether flights were delayed and to find telephone numbers of restaurants. The menu was so limited that I suspected no one would use it. Upon asking, I learned that they had only about 5000 subscribers, which was about what I had expected. I headed back to Japan doubly convinced that the depth and the breadth in the content we offer would be key to success in popularizing our service.

When I returned from the fact-finding trip, we decided to use HTML for i-mode, and we started hustling to get content providers lined up.

It's a fascinating look at how DoCoMo decided on cHTML, which I think is still way ahead of XHTML and WAP because its simplicity mimics normal HTML. Looking around on the web, I've found some i-mode sites and yes indeed, they come right up in a normal browser because cHTML is mostly just a subset of HTML. I'm sure the amount of effort developers had to make to develop for i-mode phones is minimal. The only bad things about the sites out there is that none that I can find so far are in English.

I visited AT&T Wireless' mMode site and couldn't find any information on how to become an mMode developer. I'm not sure what their plan is - from what I read, they started with WAP phones, but were going to move to XHTML/cHTML later on. It's been a year since they launched and I'm not sure exactly what being an mMode customer is like. Is there a lot of content? Is it worth the subscription fees? Are there a lot of subscribers? It's sort of a mystery.

[Later: Mystery solved. Bryan just sent me the link I was looking for, AT&T Wireless Developer. It seems to have a lot of good information to check out. But Brian said the mLife services are wanting... Interesting to know. Thanks Bryan!]

The only problem with the book, by the way, is that it was published 2 years ago in Japan, and thus does not have the latest and greatest info. That's pretty okay, but at the time of publication, iApplis were just being launched, so there's no real data on how these apps were charged for or how successful it was. I had to find that information on the web after going through the book last night. But that's fine since again, we're just starting down that road and its interesting to see the success of similar services launched years ago.

It's all incredible stuff to read. There's a ton to learn from i-mode. A ton.


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