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Guest Commentary: Tough to chart high-tech future

Apr 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

On a recent trip to Japan my 29-year-old friend Tai-Hei took me on a tour of the famous Akihabara district, the world’s biggest electronics bazaar. Imagine all the hype and neon of Las Vegas, but substitute gambling with gadgets, motherboards, laser pointers, MP3 players, Gameboys, you name it.
And everywhere there are wireless phones, most notably DoCoMo’s iMode. iMode has picked up more than 17 million customers in two years. That makes it not only the fastest-growing wireless Web product in the world but also the fastest-growing Internet service provider in history. So it’s little wonder that America’s telecom giants are rushing to study iMode and get a piece of cyberspace’s latest rising star. AOL has a joint venture with iMode, as does AT&T’s wireless business.
But these communications giants may be in for a bit of a shock. I asked Tai-Hei how he and most Japanese use their iMode phones.
“Oh,” he said, “most of the time I don’t talk to anyone. I use it to download cartoon characters on the subway that do funny things.”
“That’s all?” I asked.
“No, I also download different little songs. You, know, different ring tones.”
“You mean, you don’t use it for business? You don’t send information to anyone?”
“Not really, although every night I do send a good-night message to my girlfriend. Most people here do that.”
So iMode’s killer app isn’t what you might think. It’s not about making stock trades and getting the latest news headlines. It’s about cartoon characters and ring tones and good-night messages. Investors should know there is a huge cultural divide between Americans and Japanese when it comes to technology. Japan is the ultimate gadget culture.
In Japan the newest Sony or Nintendo games are advertised on television like the latest new car in the United States. And only Japan could have given the world that strange little invention known as Tamagotchi, the little electronic cartoon pet that millions of Japanese carried around on keychains.
It just goes to show, you never know what the next killer app will be. So when my friend Tai-Hei handed me his DoCoMo phone, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I tried out the hottest thing happening in wireless data: a cartoon character chirping at me from the palm of my hand.
William Kennard, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is currently a fellow at the Aspen Institute. This commentary was first heard on the radio show “Marketplace,” which is produced in Los Angeles by Minnesota Public Radio in association with the University of Southern California and is distributed nationwide by Public Radio International, based in Minneapolis.