One of the great failings of WAP is that it provides a completely inconsistent user experience. Incompatible gateways and browsers, sites working smoothly on one handset but not at all on the next, and so on. Engineering a simple content-based WAP site was hard enough, never mind more complex applications. Development cost and time multiplied as whole sites basically had to be reformulated to work across multiple platforms.
This, on one hand, validated carriers' "walled garden" approach. By controlling the sites available to their users, carriers could ensure they worked on the majority of their users' mobiles. But on the other hand, these carriers seemed surprised when their services didn't spread like the wildfire that is i-mode. How could they expect WAP to take off when development was so complicated, and the system was basically closed?
So earlier this summer the GSM Association, the worldwide body of GSM operators, announced its M-Services Initiative, designed to engender commonality and consistency in the next generation of mobile services. GSM operators are hoping that by simplifying development and ensuring cross-platform interoperability, GPRS mobile services won't miss like their WAP predecessors have.
The wireless sun rises in the East...
"The success of NTT DoCoMo is not because they have a great technology, but because they have a standard that all the manufacturers followed." - Mauro Sentinelli, managing director, Telecom Italia Mobile
Sentinelli's comments couldn't be truer. I-mode simply uses a packet-switched network engineered by DoCoMo in the mid-90s, not some advanced 3G system (remember, i-mode runs at only 9.6 kbps). And i-mode is simply designed to maximize user traffic over that network. To that end, development needed to be made as simple as possible.
So the execs in charge of i-mode chose the prevalent technologies - Internet technologies like HTML and Java - as opposed to some proprietary telecom-devised technologies like WAP. But their reliance on technology doesn't extend to their marketing, as most wireless operators are apt to do. They don't call their service mobile Internet or mention any of the technology, whereas mobile users in the other part of the world have to know about WAP versus HDML, or gateways or compatibility.
Because the brains behind i-mode realize something few others have caught on to: mobile services are all about content.
Anyone that can build a wired Web site can easily build an i-mode site as well, evening out the development field from large companies to one-person operations. And the technological framewok that makes this possible made i-mode's great success feasible.
The i-mode network is merely a commodity - it has little intrinsic value without any traffic running over it - and DoCoMo is comfortable with that. They are simply a pipe for data - a condition most Western carriers refuse to accept, but one they must latch on to if they are to survive. By following the i-mode model and concentrating on building a better pipe instead of trying to become media companies, they'll unlock the key to success.
The bottom line is really that i-mode isn't just a technology - it's a technology-independent way of doing business made possible by simplicity through technology.
But the sun never sets on the wireless world
"We view [the] M-services guidelines as alleviating service provider concerns on the viability of mobile Internet technologies..." - Credit Suisse First Boston
So the above idea begs the question - can it happen elsewhere? Certainly, and the M-Services Initiative is the first step.
What are telecom operators' core competencies? Not content and media development. What are media companies' and content providers' core competencies? Not telecom engineering and software development.
Agreeing on a common set of standards removes the barrier of development that service and content providers currently have to negotiate to offer their services to a wide array of users. Content providers currently have very little incentive to offer mobile services, which certainly doesn't benefit them, carriers or users.
Carriers must exercise some clout over handset and infrastructure providers to ensure the success of this and other standardization pushes. Handset manufacturers are keen to keep things as they are - by maintaining separate browsers and compatibilities, they hope to lock carriers - and consumers - into their own products. But the healthy competition a level playing field provides is a boon to both carriers and their customers, and equipment manufacturers need to realize that spurring growth in the industry will benefit them in the long run.
And carriers stand to benefit by increasing the data traffic on their networks and also by ensuring a consistent user experience. They must now be concerned how their simple WAP platforms not only perform, but also appear on the myriad of handsets their users employ.
By freeing themselves from the concern of manipulating WAP gateways and building portals in the hopes they'll work, they can pull back and play to their strengths - such as marketing, building out networks and developing new channels of revenue - such as i-mode's highly successful billing system.
In the same way, media companies can focus on their strength - content. Much in the same way they turn to Web shops to set up Internet distribution channels, they can rely on outside developers to come up with successful wireless means of distributing (and charging for) their content.
A way forward
"In a world where myriad devices are now on the market, content publishers are writing content to the lowest common denominator. This ensures that they will work on the broadest number of devices, but creates content that is neither very rich nor usable." - Richard Jelbert, CTO of developer Argogroup.
Big content publishers may follow this line of thinking, that is if they've mobilized their content at all. But the more far-reaching effects of the current state of standards means that entrepreneurs face an immense barrier to entering the industry.
Tiny startups often have a difficult time raising capital - a task made even tougher thanks to global economic woes. For many, the necessity of food, shelter and supporting families makes the leap from comfortable employment into the world of startups a difficult one. But mobile services and content ventures have an even rougher time of it.
It can be a struggle for a company to develop a product that works on one platform, let alone the hundreds demanded by today's mobile environment. And ensuring quality of service and customer satisfaction - paramount for any business, but especially so for startups - becomes a nightmare.
But by standardizing the platform, development should skyrocket - how successful would the Web be if Internet Explorer on a Dell didn't give the same results as IE on a Compaq? And where has the majority of innovation, excitement, and growth come from on the Web? Not from the portal offerings from ISPs and browser manufacturers, that's for sure.
It's from commercial third parties (ie Yahoo, Amazon, etc.), but more importantly from average people empowered by the simplicity of HTML programming. Sites like the Internet Movie Database that started out as average-Joe-run sites have blossomed into acquisition targets (Amazon in this case), and others like Jim Romenesko's Obscure Store and Piano Graphique push the boundaries of content and technology. And it's not until development can support these grass-roots and entrepreneurial efforts will the mobile medium succeed.
The only losers in standard-setting endeavors like the M-Services Initiative are those companies hoping to profit from their own proprietary, closed systems. But everyone else is a winner.
Carlo Longino is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Hoover's Online.