J2ME: Taking Asia to the Next Wireless Level
Growing up as a teenager in the 1980s, I recall the American preoccupation with the tremendous economic turnaround and job growth in Asia, specifically Japan. American politicians could always stir up sympathetic votes with dire predictions of the loss of American business. The reality, in retrospect, was that the Japanese preoccupation with improved manufacturing techniques (and the competition that ensued) only served to improve outdated American processes, and consumers became the primary beneficiary of these revolutionary changes.
Based on our recent experience, we can now recognize the Asian economic cycle of the 1980s and 1990s for what it was: a tremendous boom followed by a tremendous bust. Somewhere in between lies the equilibrium that mature markets seek.
Just as Asian markets such as Japan led the way with manufacturing initiatives two decades ago, they are currently setting the global pace for wireless data, particularly mobile commerce (m-commerce). Japan leads the pack with three major wireless services currently deployed and in widespread use: NTT DoCoMo's i-Mode, KDDI's EZweb, and J-Phone's JSky.
i-Mode is the clear leader and has become the global poster boy for those who are betting on the future of the "Wireless Internet." i-Mode currently has more than 40 million subscribers, a remarkable figure considering that i-Mode was first introduced in 1999. That total that makes it one of the most successful technology launches in history. DoCoMo's i-Mode service is now available in Europe and Taiwan and will be rolled out in the United States by AT&T Wireless in late 2002. DoCoMo and other Asian wireless carriers have also rolled out mobile Java applications (using both J2ME and iAppli, both of which I will discuss later in this article).
Before going into the specifics of the wireless Java flavors being used, I'd like to briefly examine why mobile services have been highly successful in Asia, while similar services are primarily viewed as failures in North America. Because i-Mode was the first successful wireless data offering from a major international carrier, let's examine that in a bit more detail.
Rewind back to 1999 and compare the North American wireless market to i-Mode's home base of Tokyo. In North America, the majority of users were accustomed to dealing with often spotty AMPS (analog cellular) coverage. As carriers began to roll out WAP portals and WAP browser-enabled phones (somehow managing to regularly trail their marketing efforts by as much as nine months), the majority of "wireless Web" content was offered through a carrier's portal (referred to at the time as a walled garden) and produced by the big online players: Amazon, Yahoo!, AOL, and others. No billing or mobile commerce-payment mechanism was in place that would allow a consumer to easily purchase items (including content or applications tailored for a mobile device). A few European carriers attempted rudimentary application provisioning, claiming as high as 80% of the revenue split with developers.
Contrast that environment with the world that i-Mode was born into. i-Mode services run on a packet-based network that offers a reliable 9.6kbps, always-on connection. Packet data, as opposed to circuit-switched data, can be more efficiently processed and metered, allowing a carrier to offer a pay-per-packet model rather than the more inexact pay-per-minute model. DoCoMo built the i-Mode service on e-mail, simplified HTML content (using Compact HTML, or CHTML), and HTTP. From the start, i-Mode phones supported 256 colors, making them immediately attractive to an image-conscious youth culture.
Developers eagerly supported the platform as DoCoMo offered to take only a 9% share of application revenues, based on the vision that it was better to have a small piece of a big pie. Throw in more than 100 million mobile customers and very pricey landline Internet access, and you have the makings of an explosive business. Of course, DoCoMo deserves credit for properly managing the rollout and subsequent growth of the service, even as it grows to include J2ME today.