When in ROAM: Enter Wireless Buddha
In the midst of this swirling uncertainty there is another sign
of hope. Takeshi Natsuno, creator of NTT DoCoMo's wildly successful
i-mode service, descended on the conference like a wireless Buddha.
To him and 23 million other Japanese cell phone subscribers, the
vision of the wireless future is clear and, more important, it's
Mr. Natsuno was cheerful, which immediately set him apart from
the crowd. On stage, he squashed rampant talk that the mythical
"killer app" like e-mail or short messaging service
might save them.
"There are no 'killer apps' only 'killer environments',"
he said. I-mode, he continued, is not a technology it's a business
model that enables content and applications to happen.
I-mode phones have an "always-on" connection to the Web
and allow subscribers to e-mail, share cartoon characters, instant
message and even download java applets. Subscribers are charged
a small amount for each packet of data they download not
by the minute like the rest of the world does. DoCoMo then takes
a 9 percent cut of revenues the sites generate. In contrast, some
European carriers take more than 90%, which suffocates any business
model. In the two years since the launch (Feb. 1999), DoCoMo has
gained more than 22 million subscribers and is on track to become
the world’s largest ISP (AOL has 29M).
Despite the raging success, many executives said "it's a cultural
thing, we're not a cartoon culture." Mr. Natsuno was quick
to counter such talk as merely an excuse. "The Japanese are
not a different species," he said.
He explained that i-mode's success was not guaranteed at the beginning.
He had difficultly selling the idea to his bosses and had to convince
them to step outside their conventional thinking. "Phone companies
are too conservative, non-creative and bureaucratic. That doesn't
make for great content."
I-mode has gained users by focusing on the content providers. DoCoMo
selects the best business model and technology for content creators,
which includes a giant data warehouse of user data. Then they stay
out of the way.
Some lessons the wireless carriers:
Create killer environments that enable new content and applications
Focus on business models that have user goals in mind and
encourage content providers
Follow an evolutionary development. Ask, What works today?
And build on that.
Use understandable marketing. Avoid "wireless internet"
or "WAP phone" buzz.
In the end, the only winning strategy is one of evolution. As Mr.
Natsuno put it, the phenomenal success that follows will look like
Over the past ten years, Chris
Willis has worked as an information designer for organizations
such as Ericsson, The Detroit News, HOUR Detroit Magazine, and Belo