Wednesday, July 18, 2007


O2 have just bowed to the inevitable and ditched their i-mode service - excellent news.

There's nothing particularly special about DoCoMo's Japanese i-mode service apart from the fact that loads of people use it and it makes money for everyone involved - an interesting counterpoint to the situation in the rest of the world where operators feel only they should be paid for anything and few people use their equivalent services.

Japan is years ahead of the West in many ways, but it is also very different. When i-mode was launched Japanese PC/Internet penetration was extremely low, partly for historic reasons and partly because when you live in a shoebox you can't easily squeeze a PC tower in the corner. DoCoMo presented a very culture open to new technology with a fast, simple way to access services online whilst seeding an ecosystem with inclusive open technologies - customers loved it and usage skyrocketed. With complete control over handsets - it's often hard to tell which manufacturer actually made a Japanese handset - DoCoMo ensured that all customers could find the services they wanted, and they all worked in a consistent way removing a vast swathe of development hassle. This is why i-mode is popular in Japan, despite the fact that most i-mode pages are as ugly and awkward as their wap brethren.

Almost none of these factors apply to the overseas licencees. Customers had easy access to PCs and the 'real' Internet which pushed user expectations way beyond what any phone could do, let alone phones offering what actually is a very primitive-looking service. The European markets i-mode was trying to compete in were awash with very attractive high-spec handsets, benefitting from the economies of scale that have contributed to GSM's success. DoCoMo managed to line up a handful of largely uninteresting handsets to compete, offering none of the standardisation benefits they enjoyed in their home market whilst being seriously outgunned in aesthetics and specs. The Overseas Edition i-mode wasn't even as good as the Japanese version - it was several years behind the Japanese version but also, criminally, technically behind its European contemporaries (particularly with the DoJa 1.5 flavour of Java which contains pointless restrictions). With such a selection O2 could never hope to offer only i-mode devices, therefore they had to manage i-mode (and DoJa games/content) on one side and wap (with MIDP) in parallel. Finally, users didn't really know what i-mode was or why they wanted it, so handsets were not selling because they were "i-mode" - they needed to sell on their other merits as a Trojan Horse.

Thus the i-mode experiment outside Japan was inevitably going to be a failure, but it has taken 2 years to put it down. It goes to prove that you'd be very foolish to draw too many conclusions from the Japanese market, especially if you don't actually understand all the factors involved.



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3:59 pm

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Rad:

I've always enjoyed your no BS point of view.. 8-)

However, the standard urban legend about lack of fixed-line in Japan being the reason for its mobile web success - a handy refrain to ease the ego for EU - is not based in fact.

The ITU (Intl. Telcomm. Union) has global stats for 1999, the year i-mode launched here:

It clearly shows Japanese internet subscribers per 100 (9.59) & Users per 1,000 (213.66) is on par or ahead of France, Germany, Italy and the UK at that time.

They also have the numbers for 2001 in .PDF format here:

Just thought you'd like to know..



4:44 am

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lars,

Very good point, I hadn't really compared actual figures to the rest of the world - but I guess there's still some truth to the fact that Internet penetration was still very low, regardless of how it compared to other similar countries, and I seem to remember seeing that actual PC ownership and use was also very low in Japan (wheras Europe may well have had higher PC ownership even if they weren't connected yet...)

8:47 am

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