Thursday, December 13, 2012

Glimpsing the future of telecom in a burst of innovation from DoCoMo and Softbank

A Japanese proverb says you can’t see the whole sky through a bamboo tube. It’s a message the country’s operators took to heart long ago in adopting a uniquely broad view of the possibilities of communication services.

Where else in the world can you find apps offering real-time voice translations? Or SMS-based earthquake early warning systems? These are just two examples of services launched by NTT DoCoMo, the country’s largest operator. A serial innovator who recognized the importance of a good software experience in differentiating handsets about a decade before Apple – check out this history of its i-mode platform – only last month DoCoMo launched a venture capital fund to keep the ideas flowing for years to come. Plus, a number of Japanese corporations have already expressed interest in the translation app.

But DoCoMo is not the only innovator in the Japanese market; Softbank has been equally creative in its own way. In February, for instance, it announced a partnership to provide subscribers with remote desktop access and multi-device content management services. Along with Vodafone, Verizon Wireless and China Mobile, Softbank is also a co-founder of the Joint Innovation Lab project to develop mobile services.

SoftBank also enjoyed exclusivity on the iPhone in Japan until very recently – a huge factor in SoftBank adding the most new subscribers of any Japanese operator in every year since 2007. Although a no-brainer in retrospect, this decision to commit so substantially to the iPhone represented a big risk back in 2008, when the Japanese handset market was still ruled by homegrown devices.

Either way, it’s clear that in the land of the katana, operators have long been firmly positioned at the cutting edge of communication services technology. And in many ways they have no choice. As of October 2012, Japan has no less than 127 million mobile subscribers and innovation is essential if operators are to keep them happy. South Korea deservedly gets a lot of press in this area, but paying attention to developments in Japan also seems a good idea.

After all – as Shabette-Concier, DoCoMo’s voice-command personal agent service that responds to queries by taking into account user attributes such as age and gender, is already showing – the phones there now pay attention to you.


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