What can India learn from iMode

Updated: Feb 22 2002, 05:30am hrs
iMode is the mobile Internet service offered by the Japanese telecom giant NTT through its subsidiary NTT DoCoMo. This service was started in April 1999. It is not the much-hyped 3G telecom service (that was finally launched in October 2001). With 3G and the upcoming 4G, mobile Internet will be available (under brand name FOMA from NTT DoCoMo) with speed of up to 2 Mbps. What is special about iMode is that it is a service that had a strategic vision behind the idea and perfect execution on the ground. While many of the much-hyped dot.com services went bust, DoCoMo not only survived, but also grew at dramatic speed (even by Internet standards). Today it is being launched in many countries outside Japan, including the United States.

iMode was invented by Mari Matsunaga, the lady whom Fortune magazine voted as the most powerful woman in business. In simple terms, iMode offers Internet services from the convenient cell-phone. To get full advantage of complete Internet data, better cellular phone instruments with larger and colourful display are advisable. You get data transfer rates of up to 9.6 Kbps, which is not super-fast, but fast enough for many applications. The inherent always on feature of the cellular phone guarantees near instant connection, compared to several minutes that is typical of a dial-up connection.

The real benefit, of course, is freedom from the hassles of a wired connection, the characteristic of a cellular phone. Currently, more than 40,000 sites are accessible through iMode, with 99.99 per cent of the content in Japanese. It combines effectively developers, equipment partners, standard bodies, content and commerce providers through a unique partnership and a clear understanding of user needs. iMode is not a simple Internet connection delivered at blistering speeds to a tiny phone instrument with limited display real estate. It avoids the costly transformation of data that Wireless Application Protocol and Wireless Mark-up Language adopted and in turn lost the richness of data, leading to ultimate failure.

iMode also avoids the over-emphasis of wireless convenience that Bluetooth created. It addresses the real needs of real people by interfacing Web with real content appropriate to the needs of younger generation Japanese; it exploits the graphics power of high-speed Internet that help complex Japanese Kanji character display; bundles excellent, high quality, local music that has an appeal to the youngsters; and, above all, introduces a charging model, not based on time but on data. Over the years iMode has also started addressing the needs of other members of Japanese society, namely, elderly people.

Over a period of time, DoCoMo introduced a set of services through iMode at systematic intervals so that the user base swelled beyond all expectations. While market projections expected about 100,000 subscribers in two quarters, the real user base went past 10 million in less than eighteen months. As of January 2002 iMode subscribers had crossed 28 million! Even AT&T decided to partner with NTT to extend DoCoMo services in the US. There are more than 80 iMode-ready cell phones to choose from today, thanks to the market, and the way standards were developed with partnership across firms. DoCoMos success proves that a service backed by an excellent strategy and efficient execution will be a market success, even during difficult times in a conservative market. What is necessary is a clear understanding of user needs and fine-tuning of technology to deliver the service.

Today, DoCoMo offers simple voice (packetised), high quality music, email (with support for Japanese script), high quality pictures, games, weather, sports, news service, e-commerce, e-Banking, e-ticketing, e-greetings, SMS and a whole range of services targeting specific age groups, income patterns and life styles all at rates fine-tuned to meet the demands of the customers. Though video is not yet supported, sufficient localisation has been done to support things that are a part of Japanese life. For example, the Shinkansen train symbol is a part of iMode character set.

What can India learn from iMode We need to look at solutions for our local problems and address them squarely using cutting edge technology and adapt the available technology to our needs. By defining iXTML (a subset of HTML) to incorporate Japan-specific symbols, filtering out core information to suit the limited real estate of hand held phones and by defining tags, iMode uses the best of both the worlds global standards and local innovation. This is a lesson for India. We keep complaining about Indian characters unsuitable for Godrej typewriters in place of designing typewriters to suit our Indian characters that are elegant, beautiful and phonetic!

Professor S Sadagopan is Director of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. The views expressed here are personal. He can be contacted at asks@iiitb.ac.in