• SHARE

A small cheer could be heard recently when it was announced that NTT DoCoMo would add English-language content to the menus of its i-mode cell phones. It went official July 3, and, well, the selection wasn’t that big of a surprise. In fact, some of it had already been available in previous months (and on competitors’ handsets).

Cyberia logo

DoCoMo did, however, do i-mode users a big favor by putting it all in one convenient spot. So with just a couple of thumb taps, we can get CNN, Nikkei News, Bloomberg, Dow Jones, WeatherNews, the People’s Daily and the Chosun Ilbo for news. On the cultural side, there’s the Tokyo Food Page and city-Webzine Tokyo Q. As for i-mode services, there’s Citibank and Northwest. And more.

Hip-hip hurrah.

The number of i-mode users desiring English-language content is, admittedly, still quite a thin slice of a huge pie of 8.5 million people. We can factor in the limited number of i-mode phones with bilingual interfaces and the dearth of i-mode compatible sites in English, but the bottom line is that, for the time being, i-mode is a Japan-only phenomenon. So be it. At least, it’s nice to know that the Hortons of DoCoMo heard the little people down in Whoville.

Of course, this might have something do with the very big people coming to Japan for the G-8 summit in Okinawa, and the fact that our esteemed visitors will be loaned i-mode keitai. If the Potemkin village syndrome kicked the homeless out of a Fukuoka park, my guess is that it can also account for the sudden appearance of the English language on DoCoMo’s radar. I mean, why else are they offering national anthems for ringer tones and national flags as cell-screen wallpaper? (I should mention that this paper will launch an i-mode site next week, but this has absolutely no relation to the summit. Right, guys?)

For those new to the cell-surfing scene, backspace to the Internet of the early ’90s, when pioneers trolled the “World Wide Web” via text browsers such as Lynx and cutely named conduits such as Gopher, navigating hyperlinks not with mouse clicks but with arrow and tab keys. Plain-vanilla content was neatly divided into logical, numbered hierarchical menus. It was “fast,” even on 9Kbps modems, merely because the content was text only.

Now wedge that bygone world into a screen the size of two thumbprints and you’re close to the current cell-surfing experience in Japan. Cell phones can handle some small images, and newer ones can display animated ones, but for the most part, text rules. And on models receiving at 64Kbps, it fairly zips.

Now let’s put on our propeller caps for a second. I-mode isn’t the only mobile Net gateway in town. DoCoMo rivals IDO and Tuka offers EZweb services and J-Phone has J-SkyWeb. EZweb is WAP-compatible. In the big ocean of wireless access, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) is the de facto standard — i.e. the selection of non-Japanese content is much broader. Nevertheless, the hype about WAP is matched by grumbling. Converting existing Web pages to HDML — the WAP-compatible language — isn’t a cakewalk, especially compared to i-mode, which is based on a simple subset of HTML. Furthermore, negative reviews of WAP phones service seem almost de rigueur these days.

Not surprisingly, DoCoMo, having virtually sewn up the domestic market, has set its sights on foreign shores. While inking alliances with wireless partners all over the globe, it is lobbying for the cHTML subset to be included in future WAP standards. And wireless trendwatchers say this dream could easily come true.

DoCoMo’s maneuvering might resemble Microsoft’s monopolistic tendencies, but the i-mode world is actually more akin to AOL’s gated community. Many i-mode users only cruise the Net of DoCoMo’s “content partners,” the 500-plus sites that automatically appear on their default menu lists. One would assume this is more out of convenience than ignorance. Ultimately, the more big content sites that appear on the i-mode portal, the stronger DoCoMo’s position becomes. And it’s already one hefty gorilla.

Embedded in DoCoMo’s i-mode portal is the ubiquitous yin/yang between quality control and freedom of choice. It’s attracting impressive services, but smaller sites could get overlooked and shut out of DoCoMo’s grand mobile-commerce bazaar. Paying for services is frighteningly seamless with i-mode. Charges are simply tacked onto the phone bill, and online vendors pay DoCoMo 9 percent for the privilege. It’s easy to diss the ballyhooed portal mentality, but this is an approach that can’t be ignored.

There is life beyond the preset portal menu, however. Estimates of “unofficial” i-mode sites put the number above 9,000. And, you can bet, a large hunk of it is dreck. (The Net cell-phone boom further resembles the Web’s infancy in that the publishing industry in Japan has been quick to offer numerous guides to all the “cool sites.”) However, i-mode users will find a good selection of English-language content at www.imodelinks.com . This includes items such as a guide to English/Irish pubs in Tokyo and art gallery listings.

Then there’s www.worldimode.com, a site that is apparently redirecting content designed for AvantGo’s wireless portal. (An AvantGo representative stated that they have no relationship; Worldimode.com’s Webmaster was mute on the issue.) Just like Palm users, i-mode surfers at Worldimode.com can browse The New York Times, The Economist, BBC News, Le Monde, Salon and dozens more. Well, almost like Palm users. There is the small problem of screen width — many pages are too large to digest and graphics are distorted. But content hijackers can’t be choosy.

At the very least, this is a taste of the international i-mode life, and I have to say it’s quite sweet.