Strange Bedfellows: Google and NTT DoCoMo

Posted by: Kenji Hall on December 26, 2007

Openness isn’t a word you’d normally associate with NTT DoCoMo. Japan’s No. 1 wireless carrier is, after all, a stalwart defender of the vertical integration model. That’s another way of saying DoCoMo likes to keep as much control over its ecosystem of airwaves and handsets and Internet-based content as it can. Its obvious fear is that ad revenues would shrink if it let cell phone users choose their own gateway to the Web since many would prefer not to be routed through DoCoMo’s i-mode Web site.

So what is DoCoMo doing talking with Google, which claims to stand for openness and free online content? (Or maybe the question should be directed at Google.) DoCoMo is now reportedly mulling a deal with Google that would let its 48 million i-mode subscribers in Japan tap into Google’s mobile email and search engine services. A deal might also let them use Google’s online scheduling and photo services, according to the Japanese financial daily Nikkei. My guess is that if DoCoMo and Apple can strike a deal to bring the iPhone to Japan, DoCoMo will want Google on its side, too. The reason: Google has recently rolled out an iPhone-only easy-to-use interface that Apple phone owners see when they search, access gmail or upload and manage photos. Another obvious reason is that DoCoMo, which has more than 50% market share in Japan, has been losing ground to rivals KDDI and Softbank.

There’s also the possibility that DoCoMo wants the inside track on Google’s Android mobile platform for next-generation cell phones. The attraction for DoCoMo is that it won’t have to shell out as much for newfangled handsets, whose development costs have skyrocketed in recent years because of the increasing complexity of customized software for gadget-happy phones.

So is DoCoMo embracing openness? Nah. It seems more likely that DoCoMo execs are just trying to curb costs, keep their content-related revenues from going off a cliff, and perhaps better position themselves for the day when the iPhone arrives.

Reader Comments

Serkan

December 26, 2007 4:18 AM

Interesting posting.

I didn't think about the iPhone factor -good point. It is not clear if Docomo gets the deal done with Apple but the Google alliance makes it likelier.

My take on the Google/Docomo tie up can be read here:
http://tokyotronic.blogspot.com/2007/12/google-aims-at-conquering-japan-through.html

Joseph

December 26, 2007 8:15 PM

Won't it take some time for Android to catch up or deal with the insane feature set (or feature bloat) which drive sales of new handsets in Japan?

kenji

December 26, 2007 8:45 PM

Thanks for your comments. Joseph, you raise a good point. It's probably going to be some time before Android has features that measure up to Japan's gadget-happy handsets. The one area where Android could help cell phones here is Web browsing. That could eventually change everything about the way handsets are made and built-in features decided on. Right now, small handset screens are too unwieldy to do many things online. You can't view a full Web page; most times you're browsing the Net from a mobile phone you're doing so in a format specifically designed for a 2.5-inch screen. You can't watch YouTube videos, either. Search and music downloads are by far more common because they involve picking from a list of choices. So it's no wonder phones here have so many built-in features. But what if screens were big enough that you could go online, easily find what you need, and download features or widgets for your handset, much like you'd do with a PC? You wouldn't need so many built-in features; you'd be able to customize with stuff from the Net. When the iPhone arrives in Japan, it will have one of the largest screens of any handset available here. I'm hoping that other handset makers will follow suit by making bigger screens, adopting touch screens, and opening up the software so consumers can use their phones more like PCs. It's unclear whether Android will add that level of software sophistication to cell phones. But it's a possibility.

Joseph

December 27, 2007 4:53 AM

I hope so Kenji. I recently got impatient waiting for the iPhone's decent mobile browsing and bought, and then returned, one of the new Windows Mobile phones.

The not-mobile-but-not-fullsized browsing experience was incredibly annoying. Also, I couldn't type quickly with one hand on the train like I can with T9 input.

I suspect that Japanese hackers will (or have) develop alternative input methods of iPhones or touchscreen smartphones that are more train-friendly than the mini-querty layout.

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