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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 working.

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 to flourish.
• 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 a revolution.

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 Interactive.

I-mode user in Japan
I-mode user in Japan.
Photo courtesy nooper.com

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