With a touch of nostalgia I read the Wireless Watch Japan entry on mobile internet in Japan. The WWJ piece was critiquing an article in TechCrunch by on the success of mobile internet in Japan, particularly NTT Docomo’s i-mode.

The WWJ editors (rightly) point out that the success of mobile internet in Japan was mostly down to technological and business model innovation rather than cultural specificity in the Japanese market.

The WWJ editors are very dismissive of the Japan-specific story, and understandably so. This line has been carried by most analysts in the West and was long used as a reason why i-mode would never work outside of Japan. Regarding i-mode’s success,  they are spot on in identifying the importance of the relationships between handset manufacturer, operator, and content provider.

plus8star gives a good list of Japan firsts that help debunk the “only in Japan” approach used to dismiss much Japanese innovation:

  • Mobile email -1999
  • Camera phones and TFT colour screens – 2000
  • Commercial 3G  -2001
  • QR code reader – 2002
  • A big market for ringtones and song downloads (over 160 billion yen in 2005 according to Digital Content Association of Japan)

In a slightly more academic look at the success, this book chapter, Out of the Japanese Incubator (free download from ANU EPress) suggests a generalised 6 point model to the success of the platform.

  1. Collaborative business network between operators and manufacturers.
  2. Content aggregation.
  3. Micropayment mechanism.
  4. Independent content providers.
  5. Freedom of access outside aggregated content.
  6. Increased connectivity that results from these factors.

The book chapter also argues that rather than cultural specificity, the biggest barriers to exporting the i-mode model are likely to be 1) lack of the collaborative relationship between handset manufacturer and operator, 2) tendency for operators to enter exclusive arrangements with major content providers, and 3) the popularity of prepaid mobile phones outside of Japan.

So while western journalists and analysts got most fired up (and dismissive) about Japanese mobile telephony around 2001, Japan is still a resounding hotbed of innovation that – often years later – gets picked up in other markets. Leaving Tokyo again in 2007, I suffered major withdrawal symptoms after giving up the RFID contactless stored value card built into my phone. I didn’t know how I would be getting on trains or making payments at convenience stores.

But then again, I was coming to Canberra. I wouldn’t be using trains. Or convenience stores.

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