Internet A La I-Mode

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But the more important obstacle was money. Telecommunications is still a tightly regulated industry in Japan. Local phone calls are expensive and charged by the minute. Money, in fact, is one of the reasons the Japanese send e-mail on i-mode instead of simply calling their friends. DoCoMo charges i-mode users according to the amount of data they receive or send, not the amount of time they are online. One message with 50 characters costs 1 yen. A 1-min. phone call? Twenty yen.

Even so, the typical i-mode subscriber racks up about $80 a month in charges. Take Koji Hakuta, 28, a truck driver. In his pre-i-mode days, he would deliver a load of pipes from Tokyo to Nagoya and then return empty. But a year ago, his boss launched a site for i-mode that brokers deals between drivers and cargo companies. One night, Hakuta logged on and found a client needing pipes trucked the other way, back to Tokyo. That load earned Hakuta an extra $230. "It's changed the way I work," Hakuta says. The only problem is, he's so hooked on i-mode, browsing sites and e-mailing friends that his boss complains his phone is busy all the time.

The i-mode world is also heavily populated by teenagers. When Mami Kato, 17, has a hankering to see her favorite boy band in Tokyo, she pulls out an indispensable weapon: her ivory-toned mobile. She punches a key five times with her thumb and logs on to a chat room for groupies of SMAP, the 'N Sync of Japan. There she picks up a rumor that the SMAP boys will be gathering near a local subway station. She thumbs out a message to a friend, and the next day, she and some 300 other boy-obsessed teenyboppers are staking out the exits. "The mobile phone is crucial for following my heroes," the mini-skirted, frizzy-haired Kato says. "It's competitive out there." Suddenly she stops talking. Incoming e-mail to check. "I've gotta go," she says.

So does DoCoMo. To get established worldwide, the company is building alliances with foreign telecom giants and media heavyweights, everyone from AT&T and AOL Time Warner (parent company of TIME) to Telecom Italia Mobile and KPN Mobile in Europe. The stakes are enormous. What DoCoMo has to offer is experience operating a hugely successful wireless data service. What it hopes to gain is access to customers and a chance to urge companies to adopt the technical standards that it favors. DoCoMo plans to establish a mobile Internet service with European partners by the end of the year. That should be a fairly easy launch, since the clunky Web phone service currently available, which uses a technology called wap (wireless application protocol), has been a dud.

In the U.S. the challenge is a bit stiffer, primarily because the kinds of services offered on i-mode don't seem that marketable to Web-savvy Americans. "I think generally that there's more unique to it [as a Japanese product] than there is that's common to it" as a global product, Microsoft Asia president Michael Rawding told Reuters last month. Others who have watched the i-mode craze take over Tokyo are more optimistic. "Of course there have to be cultural adaptations," analyst Boodry says. "But that's no big deal. They will figure out in the U.S. what kind of stuff to offer."

In fact, that's exactly what AT&T Wireless is doing. The company plans to introduce elements of i-mode sometime this year, possibly under a different name. The company won't be specific about content, but e-mail is a must. AT&T Wireless will probably focus on practical areas such as stocks, news and other information, rather than Japan's Hello Kitty approach.

Enoki, for one, has no doubt that i-mode will succeed in the U.S., reasoning that, in the end, utility will win out. But to some extent, i-mode's success in Japan has as much to do with the peculiarities of Japanese culture as it does with the technology. In a place where eye contact and direct speech are avoided, a heads-down, thumb signaling device is a perfect communications instrument. That may not be the case in the in-your-face U.S., where no place is too public to conduct an intimate cell-phone conversation in a loud voice. It's hard to imagine the U.S. becoming a nation of thumb talkers. But if i-mode can substitute a finger for the cell-phone chatter that is filling our theaters, restaurants and commuter-train cars, it will draw a thumbs-up from most people.

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