[ASIA] It’s no secret that, despite massive hype, consumer acceptance of the
wireless Internet in the U.S. has been inconsequential. However, the recent acquisition by NTT
DoCoMo of a stake in AT&T Wireless could help change all that.
When it announced the DoCoMo buy-in, AT&T also said it would license i-mode and to add a
GSM “overlay” to its existing wireless system. Those two bits of technology news may well start
the process of putting wireless in North America on a par with the rest of the world.
Toward Less Standard Confusion
Most of Europe and large tracts of the rest of the world use GSM but that over-the-air interface is
relatively inconsequential in the U.S. However, because of its popularity worldwide, there is an
impressive array of devices and applications available for GSM.
Once AT&T’s GSM overlay is complete, those applications and devices can start being available
in North America, which will foster more consumer acceptance.
For instance, I recently spent a few days with Ericsson’s R380 World Net-ready phone and found
it far more usable than other Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones. Its personal
information capabilities are more powerful and easier to use, its screen is more viewable and,
remarkably, the phone is smaller than my current WAP phone. Unfortunately for most North
American users, it’s only available for GSM.
Another advantage of GSM is that U.S. residents can more easily stay in touch as they roam the
world. And many existing GSM applications, such as wireless payment, can start migrating to the
True, the well-heeled AT&T may be using the GSM overlay to put the hurt on competitors that
can’t afford parallel technologies. However, the greater good is that the move toward GSM helps
the U.S. join the rest of the wireless world, providing a new body of products that should be
attractive to users.
Here Comes i-Mode
Poor, poor WAP. First, its supporters overhyped it, then wireless operators made unattainable
claims about it. Geoworks’ seemingly successful patent claims on the technology hang like a dark
cloud. Now, AT&T is embracing DoCoMo’s competing i-mode technology.
WAP won’t go away — it is, by all accounts, too good a technology and it still is evolving. Plus,
the existing investment in WAP is enormous. And, as WAP proponents point out, i-mode is
proprietary. If you want to use it, you have to deal with DoCoMo. However, the
AT&T/DoCoMo announcement makes it ever-more clear that WAP won’t dominate.
Still, there are some silver linings in the AT&T-DoCoMo deal for WAP supporters. For one,
DoCoMo agreed that it wouldn’t partner with any other wireless operators in the U.S. It
reportedly had been flirting with other operators such as Cingular. That keeps the way open for a
pluralistic world in which WAP and i-mode co-exist.
Second, AT&T and DoCoMo also
swore allegiance to WAP Next Generation (WAPNG). It’s
too early to say what exactly that means, but it may portend a merger of sorts between WAP and
i-mode. In either case, i-mode is becoming a worldwide force, not just a phenomenon in Japan.
Why is this good for acceptance of wireless Net access in North America? Transcoders and other
format converters, which convert Web content to wireless content, must embrace i-mode. That,
however, should occur quickly. When it does occur, competition between the technologies should
increase, which will increase the amount of content and applications available for wireless devices.
That, in turn, will encourage acceptance of the wireless Net.
DoCoMo has not hidden that it wants to be a worldwide wireless force. It’s hard to know exactly
what that means beyond its continuing effort to buy into a variety of carriers such as AT&T
What is clear, however, is that DoCoMo’s investment in AT&T Wireless is important for the
wireless industry in North America. That’s because it helps resolve problems that have dampened
consumer enthusiasm for the wireless Net.