WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- When ATT Wireless rolled out its new "mLife" service with pricey, if not terribly comprehensible, television ads during this year's Super Bowl, Americans were getting their first taste of what the Japanese public has been going wild for since 1999 -- wireless Internet access.
Most cell phone users in the United States live a "voice-only" existence, with 5 percent of wireless users sending text messages. The opposite is true in Japan, where about 80 percent of the cell phones have Internet access. What is all the more striking is that little more than three years ago, the figure was near zero.
How this new market was created and what lessons can be learned by American corporations are explored in "DoCoMo: Japan's Wireless Tsunami." Accenture analysts John Beck and Mitchell Wade delve into the people and decisions that turned a spin-off of Japan's venerable Nippon Telephone and Telegraph into a global player in wireless telecom.
If their book does nothing else, it provides a valuable public service by explaining those cryptic ATT commercials: mLife is the United States version of DoCoMo's i-mode wireless Internet service. Burned by customer backlash from previous attempts to bring World Wide Web access to wireless phones, most U.S. providers go out of their way to downplay the Internet access aspect of their services. In late 1990s Japan, however, the market was very different.
Few homes had Internet access, the vast majority of Web sites were in English, and cell phones were prohibitively expensive. DoCoMo's management dropped the price of both handsets and airtime, produced handsets with Internet access and worked with content providers to give customers something to actually access.
Not used to large monitors and fast Internet access from home personal computers, the Japanese public eagerly embraced wireless Internet services. Typical content for an i-mode phone includes news, sports, city guides, an online phone book, financial services and the most popular: sites to download new ringtones and screensavers.
There are 3,000 Web sites registered in DoCoMo's portal sites and an additional 57,000 sites that offer content designed for i-mode users. The results of this enterprise were nothing less than astonishing. In January 2000, there were about 2.5 million i-mode subscribers. By January 2002, the number reached 30 million.
But more than describing a success story, Beck and Wade look behind the scenes to find lessons that American corporations can learn and translate DoCoMo's success into their own. The authors' provocative conclusion: the most important factor in creating Japan's "wireless tsunami" was passion.
Passion, combined with factors like love, strength, impatience, inequality, fun and luck were the drivers of DoCoMo's rapid growth, the authors argue. As they describe it, DoCoMo succeeded "because the right people in the company had the right mix of powerful, human emotions -- and proved extremely skillful at managing them. DoCoMo used passions to lead its own creative and competitive efforts, to lead the market, and, ultimately, to lead a global industry."
Their success was all the more rare in that it was in a market (mobile data) that didn't even exist when the DoCoMo team was spun off from NTT. And their market keeps expanding. In addition to their venture with ATT, DoCoMo has brought i-mode to Europe, and this summer, Taiwan.
Regrettably, even with unfettered access to key players, the authors leave more questions than answers by end of the book. While the authors manage to avoid being too "touchy-feely," with their focus on the emotions of business, there is little time left for the business of business -- DoCoMo's corporate structure, detailed earnings and expense information, the state of the broader wireless industry, as well as seemingly minor things such as what an i-mode phone actually looks like.
An idea of how the wireless network worked and the state of the relationship between NTT and DoCoMo would have been instructive. In addition, "DoCoMo" is packed to the margins with sidebars, pull quotes, charts and tables, only a distinct minority of which are relevant to (or mentioned in) the text. In a particularly egregious example, a whole page is consumed by a transcript of a session with "Eliza," the online machine-based "therapist."
In spite of the flaws in the storytelling, the DoCoMo story is an important one. Any corporation that can generate $30 billion in annual revenues in the midst of a decade-long recession is definitely one to pay attention to.
However, for all of its behind-the-scenes interviews and management analysis, this book gives short shrift to many of the underlying technological, economic and cultural reasons behind the wireless Internet boom in Japan, and makes a less-than-compelling case on just how applicable
the lessons are to the United States.
Prophetically, the subject of the book's first case study, a computer-savvy professional, hardly uses the Internet features of her i-mode phone at all. "Because she first met the Internet on the PC," the authors note, "Yasuko says she'll never want to use a phone as her main way to access it."
Sober words indeed for any American wireless provider -- or customer -- considering a jump into the mobile data market.
("DoCoMo: Japan's Wireless Tsunami," by John Beck and Mitchell Wade, AMACOM, 272 pages, $25.)