Leading the Way
By Dave Mock, Fri Dec 07 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Some wireless companies have taken the fast track to advanced services, giving all the followers the opportunity to take cheap shots.

It was in late April that NTT DoCoMo announced a scaled back rollout of their third-generation FOMA service. No longer would it be the full, commercial offering they intended - that would be pushed out into October. A trial service beginning in May would give them enough time to work the bugs out of the system.

The response from the media and industry publications to this announcement was loud and protracted. DoCoMo had "failed". They were "embarrassed". The company was "struggling" with a technology that doesn't work. Even the brightest of commentaries simply gave NTT credit for finally admitting what every other person on earth seemingly realized long ago - that they couldn't possibly make their launch date.

Such is life for the true leaders of the industry. Those few companies that relentlessly pursue the cutting edge of technology and consumer services often find themselves prime fodder for the competition and industry pundits.

What failure brings

When looked at in a bigger context, failure is the essential building block of any industry. Without failure - repeated, shameful, downright ugly failure - the wireless industry would be nowhere near where it is today.

Without WAP's dismal entry into the mobile world, no one would have learned what consumers really find useful on a mobile device in terms of information and its presentation. Sometimes learning what will not work is just as valuable as finding out what will.

This holds true for many of the great discoveries of the industrial age as well.

Dozens of initial failures of Alexander Graham Bell to build a suitable "speaking telegraph", while troublesome, did not deter him from finally succeeding. Thomas Alva Edison is known to have experimented with thousands of filament materials before finding the right one for a reliable light bulb. Most significant advances took years - if not entire lifetimes - for many inventors.

When reviewing many of the great technological advances in history, it's obvious that confidence and perseverance easily overcomes many failures. Not only that, but numerous failures often help focus the work of an inventor or company to accelerate their journey to eventual success.

It seems that all a visionary really needs is a single-minded approach that their endeavors are not only possible, but also destined to be attainable. Many reach their goal by trial and error, while others simply stumble across it accidentally during arduous work.

To venture into the unknown

Being a leader in any industry means venturing into territory where others dare not go due to lack of resources, lack of knowledge or pure fear. History acknowledges countless figures and teams of individuals who take up this challenge. Those that follow these pioneers are rarely mentioned.

The leaders are not necessarily the well-known names either. Take the endeavors of Edward Creighton, a name who bears little familiarity. In his time, Mr. Creighton was practically a hero in the United States, where his bravado led to the construction of much of the nation's key infrastructure in the mid 1800s.

In 1859, Creighton was absorbed with linking the East and West Coast telegraph lines. Accomplishing this meant laying thousands of miles of wire through uncharted lands, home to hostile Indians and treacherous weather.

The criticism of Creighton's effort was almost unanimous. Many people thought it would be impossible to navigate the land and safely erect the communications infrastructure. Even with this doubt, many critics couldn't grasp the need for such an undertaking - the current methods of communication worked just fine.

Undaunted, Creighton performed the original survey of the route by himself, unescorted, in the worst winter month of January. He completed the trek, and sent word that the project was feasible. With most people still doubting the possibility, the line was completed in record time.

Years later, nationwide communication flourished. Creighton became very wealthy and many of his most bitter critics made ample use of the communications network that Creighton himself deployed. A visionary with a hard work ethic, Creighton proved smarter than his many detractors.

In much the same way, Craig McCaw pioneered cellular networks in the 1980s with his vision of widespread wireless networks. It seems few others besides McCaw saw the tremendous value in the frequency spectrum for wireless communications.

It wasn't until years later when McCaw had largely fulfilled his vision that others came to see what he had realized long ago: that people had an insatiable urge to communicate. And like most visionaries, by the time the followers realized the value of cellular, McCaw was already on to bigger things.

Staying power

Beyond visionary qualities, what makes a true leader today is not one who simply responds to problems and corrects errors. True leaders set a high bar and rise to meet it, even when they miss badly on several initial tries.

Qualcomm had lofty goals for their wireless technology back in the late 1980s. With claims that their technology would far outperform any other in terms of capacity, Qualcomm had garnered the attention of many potential customers.

But early trials failed to realize the promised capacity numbers. Even with succeeding revisions of the technology, they still fell short of the claim of 10 to 20 times the capacity of analog networks in many cases.

But they did go far beyond what anyone else could do. While many mocked CDMA technologies as something that wouldn't even work in a commercial application, it actually succeeded in providing many benefits beyond competing technologies. This success has eventually led to CDMA technology being the basis for 3G services around the world.

Countless other examples exist as well. As cellular boomed in the 1990s, many people thought that handset styles could not be made common across the world. Too many differing, regional tastes meant that manufacturers would only do well in local markets. Nokia has done especially well in dispelling this belief.

Research in Motion also fell victim to predictions of doom yet still survives today. Who would have thought that hundreds of thousands of people would pay so much money for just wireless email?

Of course, being an industry leader takes a lot more than a vision with lofty goals and a determination to meet them. Obviously, the goals must be meaningful to the market that it serves. While some companies can be credited with doing incredible things, their misplaced targets still lead to their downfall.

Metricom made impressive progress in implementing wireless broadband networks on a city-wide scale in the United States. While they were leading this charge, they were essentially the only game in town, which may help explain why their business failed. Without several peers battling for market share, many still wonder if the market is really even viable.

In this case, the market was not there. Metricom was unable to find the right balance of cost with the services attractive to a large market. Unfortunately, technology still has to meet the laws of supply and demand.

Great anticipation

With FOMA now officially launched and commercial service started, many of the reporters that had covered the story with such impunity are now suddenly silent. Several recent stories are even laced with comments of disbelief that point out - with the author's apparent bewilderment - that it actually works!

And early demand for the phones shows at least a curious market. While the long-term success is far from determined, the uptake of the service is looking to do better than many expected.

In acknowledgement of the industry first, Keiji Tachikawa, president of DoCoMo, stated in a press conference in Tokyo: "We focus on services that will be accepted as fast as possible. We are trailblazing."

Admittedly the service is not perfect. The phones are expensive, hard to find, and have horrible battery life (compared to i-mode phones). The service is offered in a very limited region, basically a 30km area around Tokyo. Other limited areas of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya will only go live sometime before the end of the year.

But reaching this goal - even with all the current limitations - is a monumental achievement. While the buzz surrounding NTT DoCoMo today may be that of skepticism, the history books will likely shine brightly on them.

Dave Mock is a freelance writer covering mobile technologies and markets. His published papers help educate investors in wireless markets and are available through MightyWords.com and other affiliates. His first hardcover book on investing in wireless will be available from McGraw-Hill in April 2002.