A funny thing happened on the way to work . .

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About a year ago, I was doing much of my information intake on trains. I don’t know about you, but I average close to an hour a day traveling around in Tokyo’s speeding sardine cans. Until this spring, I would connect my handy Visor PDA to my computer in the morning, download fresh news stories and features from major content providers and devour them during my morning and evening commutes.

Then tragedy struck: My brand-spanking new iMac went belly-up (I’ll spare you the gory details), effectively severing my slender umbilical cord to a wireless mode of being.

There was an upside to this. I went back to reading more of those great things called books. (I can heartily recommend the complete Ian Rankin series of Detective Rebus thrillers). But I still missed my digital diet.

Enter i-mode. I’d seen the ads, I’d seen the thumb-typing kids, I had to have one. (Do I suffer from gadget envy? Doesn’t everyone?) And so I joined the growing ranks, whose numbers currently stand at 15.4 million subscribers.

As for cell-surfing on the train, there was, of course, the small problem of small screens, less foreign content and, uh, going underground. There were also those pesky “no keitai” signs, but on that count, my techno-fate improved somewhat. A few months ago, my main train line (Tokyu’s Oimachi-sen) began to allow cell-phone use (that’s mail and surfing but no talking) in certain cars. Is this a milestone or what? As far as I know, other train lines have yet to adopt this policy, but it’s only a matter of time before they see the light.

In case you have been disconnected from the zeitgeist: Wireless communication was the boom this year in Japan, with DoCoMo’s i-mode leading the way. But another funny (albeit predictable) thing happened along the way … Reporters, analysts and manufacturers from abroad began to gather around the i-mode colossus, with their magnifying glasses and measuring tapes, and mumble “‘How did this get here?” “How’d it get so big?”

The coverage, analyses and plain old hype devoted to i-mode have been formidable in quantity, but much of it swung to one of two extremes: For convenience, reliability and usability, the i-mode service is either praised as being superior to WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) systems or pooh-poohed as an idea that could never fly outside DoCoMo’s domain.

The latter extreme has typically cited the following issues:

* “Net novelty has fueled i-mode’s success.” Since many i-mode users lack home PCs and have never used e-mail or the Net before, they’re perfectly happy with the pokey connection speeds and tiny screens.

* “It’s not a business app.” While the variety of i-mode content sites is impressive, the really profitable ones are selling cutesy screen-savers and ringer melodies.

* “I-mode can only work under a monopolistic entity like NTT DoCoMo.”

All of these points contain kernels of truth, but they hardly explain why i-mode can’t be tweaked for overseas markets.

As for the hype, the instant assumption that i-mode will erase WAP from hand-set screens everywhere is like predicting that SMAP’s next release will top the U.S. Billboard charts. The assumption also ignores the possibility of some type of hybrid emerging (bound together by Java, perhaps?). For better or worse, too much money and time have been invested in WAP for it to disappear that easily. While WAP phones have received their share of bad press, the technology still has plenty of potential.

As for the reality, DoCoMo is methodically doing the groundwork by making friendly investments in overseas cell operators and securing support for its wideband CDMA network. The cornerstone was laid two weeks ago when it was announced that DoCoMo would buy a 16 percent of the AT&T Wireless group, the No. 3 cell-phone operator in the U.S. That’s about $6.17 billion for a lot of potential i-mode users. DoCoMo has gone into similar deals in Asia and Europe.

The next step will be overseas aggregation of i-mode friendly content. While the code-writing is infinitely easier than WAP, it could take time. For a quick explanation why, just run a search at Yahoo.com for “i-mode” or “imode.” Amazing, isn’t it? Not one site. This perhaps says more about the limits of Yahoo’s database, but it is still an indication of the state of i-mode beyond these shores.

English-language info hubs are, however, beginning to spring up. If you’re looking for up-to-date linkage to i-mode reports and data, there is PaloWireless’ I-mode Resources Center (www.palowireless.com/imode/) and Mobile Media Japan (www.mobilemediajapan.com). For original coverage of the deals and the developers you can do no better than the magazine/Web site J@pan Inc (www.japaninc.net).

For a more personal take, there’s an eGroup (www.egroups.com/group/iMode_group) where you can discuss everything under the wireless sun. However, before you step into the fray, you might want to check out Eurotechnology’s fine primer on i-mode (www.eurotechnology.com/imode/faq.html).

And in case you were wondering, my iMac is back from the shop (hopefully for good) and my Visor is back in my pocket. Problem is, it’s right next to my cell phone.