International -- The Stars of Asia -- Managers
Keiichi Enoki (int'l edition)
Director -- Gateway (Internet) Business Dept., NTT DoCoMo -- Japan
If there's one person responsible for the mobile Internet revolution sweeping Japan, it's Keiichi Enoki at NTT DoCoMo. The 51-year-old chief of Internet operations is the mastermind behind I-MODE, a pioneering wireless Net service taking the country by storm. "I knew [the service] had to be convenient to use and instantly accessible," says Enoki. With a few clicks on a handset, I-MODE users can do everything from online banking and stock trading to purchasing concert tickets and booking karaoke rooms.
Enoki's achievement has put Japan into the fast lane of the mobile Internet and made the company a model for others to follow. More than 7.5 million Japanese now subscribe nationwide, and the total is expected to hit 15 million by yearend. The company conservatively estimates $3 billion in subscriber and other fees this year if enthusiastic Japanese keep signing up at the rate they have been. Meantime, NTT DoCoMo plans to take I-MODE global. Hong Kong will be first, with service scheduled to start later this year as part of a venture with Hutchison Telecom. In the future, I-MODE will be upgraded and packaged with a next-generation cell-phone system that DoCoMo hopes to transplant around Asia and Europe.
Enoki came up with the idea for I-MODE back in 1997, when he was asked to find a way to expand DoCoMo's voice service into data transmission. He figured gadget-crazy Japanese cell-phone users would embrace wireless access to the Net. So Enoki hired Internet experts, while company engineers raced to build a packet-data network that would offer users a constant connection all the time, without the need to dial up. In February, 1999, Enoki and his team rolled out I-MODE, making DoCoMo the world's first mobile carrier to offer subscribers commercial Net access service.
Becoming a tech maven was not Enoki's first choice. As a teenager growing up in Tokyo, he contemplated an unconventional career as an actor. But he showed a talent for math, so his parents encouraged him toward technology. He studied electrical engineering at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, and he joined the bureaucratic phone monopoly Nippon Telegraph & Telephone upon graduating in 1974.
Enoki, though, didn't like to conform. He took to wearing blue shirts--still his preference today--instead of the traditional white. He also developed a reputation as a free thinker, someone who wasn't afraid to contradict his bosses on company strategy. In 1992, when NTT spun off its wireless unit, few wanted to move to DoCoMo, which was regarded as a risky venture. Not Enoki, who was keen to join the new business at a time when Japan was just beginning to liberalize its wireless-phone market. "Enoki isn't your typical NTT employee," observes DoCoMo President Keiji Tachikawa. "He's very creative." He quickly proved himself a capable manager, setting up regional operations for the newly independent carrier. When DoCoMo wanted to branch into a new business, Enoki got the call.
A family man, Enoki credits his children for waking him up to the potential of mobile Net service. He observed his young son playing with his portable game machine and his teenage daughter engaging in "chat" with her friends, using a pager outfitted with a tiny keyboard. "I saw that they had no built-in barriers to using digital gadgets as information and entertainment tools," he says. So Enoki thought the public would take to the wireless Web if they could do it simply, by using their cell phones.FIXING BOTTLENECKS. Enoki is the first to admit that I-MODE is far from perfect. Because of the slow transmission speed, it's not possible yet to quickly download images or music. Much of the content is text-based and lacks vivid graphics. Given the avalanche of new subscribers, the network's servers have jammed repeatedly, leading to disruptions in service. That's part of the learning experience, counters Enoki. "We're pioneers," he says. "We're fixing the bottlenecks and paving the way for the development of the mobile Internet."
His next challenge is to upgrade the service to complement a new broadband cellular service that DoCoMo plans to launch next year. That will make possible high-speed data transmission, as well as video. In this new wireless age, Enoki sees I-MODE emerging as a major portal and e-commerce platform. "I'm not saying everything will be wireless," he explains. "But it'll be one of the main information highways." And if Enoki succeeds, I-MODE will be one of the major entry points.