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Consumer Wireless in the US and Japan

There was an interesting article in the Seattle Times last Sunday, Japan and the United States worlds apart on wireless. The author gets right two key aspects of the Japanese consumer wireless data phenomenon that are often missed by Western writers: tailor-made phones and markets for application developers:

The Japanese carriers were helped by their ability to develop tight relationships with manufacturers such as NEC, Panasonic and Sharp.. A carrier can specify a phone with a camera inside and then launch a photo service to its subscribers. U.S. carriers, on the other hand, have relied on the market leaders like Nokia, which develop their phones independently. It's ready-to-wear versus haute couture. If you deal with Nokia, then you buy off the rack. The carriers in the U.S. have little say on what's built into the phone.
This is true, but beyond being able to specify the feature set of phones, through large volume orders, Japanese carriers specify the very design of their phones, which enables consistent user interfaces and, therefore, consistent interaction with wireless data services. Shops in Akihabara and Shinjuku carry dozens of DoCoMo cell phones, all more or less differentiated, but all featuring the same button layout and same screen resolution. Any i-mode or i-appli (DoCoMo's version of J2ME) service will work identically across these phones. The importance of a stable platform for both consumers and developers can't be overstated.
Japan's carriers set up a business model in which content providers -- the ones who develop the ring tones and games -- could make money. When users choose to play games, a monthly charge of $2.50 or less shows up on their phone bill. The carrier takes a small slice, but about 90 percent goes to the game developer. The result is that 56,000 content sites are available to i-mode subscribers. So far, most of the U.S. carriers have not allowed content providers to assess charges, leaving little incentive to create any compelling content.
This is absolutely correct. DoCoMo makes it easy for application developers not only to develop software and services, but then to deliver them to consumers and receive payment in return. Steps toward such provisioning are happening in the United States, but only slowly. Until carriers here see it as a win-win to enable developers to make money from their customers, the applications won't be there, at least not in significant volume.

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