In the course of the past year NTT DoCoMo Inc. President Keiji Tachikawa has guided his company -- and its I-mode mobile Internet service -- to virtual superstardom in the wireless world. Under his leadership, the wireless carrier has brought the Internet to millions of Japanese via their cellular phones, launched an ambitious plan to do the same for mobile phone users worldwide by partnering with foreign carriers, and is preparing the launch of the world's first third-generation wireless network. He is IDG News Service's Asian IT personality of the year.
Tachikawa became the president of DoCoMo in 1998, having joined the company, then called NTT Mobile Communications Network Inc., in 1997. Previously, he served in various positions at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT), Japan's former monopoly, government-run carrier that still holds a controlling stake in DoCoMo. At the time, the carrier was Japan's leading cellular provider but had done little to get itself noticed around the world.
The seeds of DoCoMo's superstardom were sown in early 1999 when it launched I-mode, a wireless Internet service similar to the services based on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) that at the time were being promoted and launched by European cellular operators. Tachikawa's I-mode team, a small group of people who have ultimately gone on to be as well known as Tachikawa himself within the Japanese business world, promoted the service heavily to content providers as an entire business platform rather than just a technology. The Europeans should have paid closer attention.
By the closing months of 1999, I-mode was being noticed outside of Japan as the number of subscriptions broke the 3 million mark. During 2000 the number of subscriptions climbed higher -- much higher.
Faced with the popularity of the service and the amount of money being made from it, DoCoMo began making I-mode a standard feature on all of its cellular phones from the summer of 2000. It really had to. Consumers were less and less interested in handsets that didn't provide access to the service.
By early December, the number of subscribers to the service had reached 15.5 million and the service boasted 721 content partners providing 1,280 sites via I-mode's main menu. An additional 31,085 I-mode sites, created by individual users and businesses alike, also existed, although they were not listed on the service's menu, according to DoCoMo's own estimates.
Growing I-mode at such a rapid rate wasn't without its problems, however. After a series of embarrassing service breakdowns, DoCoMo attempted to slow new subscriptions throughout May by pulling all advertisements for the service and slowing the supply of handsets to retailers. The company fixed the problem, which was caused by server overloading, although the lack of advertising didn't do much to slow down new subscriptions. I-mode already had a life of its own.
The same is now true of NTT DoCoMo as a whole. Its stand at the recent Telecom Asia exhibition in Hong Kong was the center of attention for most people and the company or its I-mode service were mentioned in countless keynote addresses and discussion sessions, all without input or prompting of DoCoMo.
And its not all I-mode. The company has also been busy preparing and promoting third-generation (3G) wireless services. It plans to launch a commercial W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) network in Tokyo in late May 2001, which is expected to be the first commercial rollout of a 3G network in the world.
Throughout the year, DoCoMo has been working on perfecting the technology to make this new system a reality. The system promises data transmission speeds many times higher than those of today's mobile phone networks. Carriers outside of Asia, many of whom have invested huge amounts of money in auctions to secure frequency space for 3G services, are watching the company closely to see what the network rollout will bring, and what the Japanese public pick as the killer apps for wireless multimedia.
DoCoMo is returning the stares just as intensely as it continues searching for foreign partners. It first started down this road in the dying days of 1999 when it took a minority stake in Hong Kong's Hutchison Telephone Co. Ltd. In 2000 it followed this with a stake in KPN Mobile NV, of the Netherlands, and, most recently, Taiwan's KG Telecommunications Co. Ltd. and the soon-to-be-independent wireless unit of AT&T Corp. In Europe, NTT DoCoMo is also working with KPN Mobile and Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., parent of Hutchison Telephone, to secure 3G mobile licenses.
Announcing the latter KG Telecom and AT&T Wireless deals, Tachikawa said DoCoMo's buying spree was over for now in Europe and North America, but will continue into 2001 in Asia.
All of this makes DoCoMo, I-mode and Keiji Tachikawa, worth watching in 2001.