It's scary to think that sophisticated 3G mobile systems may depend for their survival on Hello Kitty, that cutesy Japanese pink cat with whiskers but no mouth. But that's what it might come down to.
Not long ago, a 3G content developer noted that backgrounds with the Hello Kitty design, which serves the same purpose as the Western world's yellow smiley face, were one of the most popular downloads over i-mode, the mobile multimedia service offered by Japan's NTT Docomo.
Such simple things are also trs chic in Taiwan. Sixty percent of the traffic on the proprietary i-mode service is for ring tones, background wallpaper like Hello Kitty and real-time news, according to the top executive at KG Telecom.
KGT, a relatively small operator in Taiwan, decided earlier this year to forgo its bid for a 3G license because it saw too many obstacles, such as a lack of applications, to the generation of cash in the short term. Instead, KGT turned to NTT Docomo because it offered a tip-to-toe solution. So far, Taiwan is one of only two export destinations for i-mode.
For the mobile industry, Taiwan and Japan represent interesting case studies that offer evidence of the services consumers want. Though such evidence is far from conclusive, network operators, equipment operators, equipment vendors, handset providers and content developers that are still uncertain about how to make 3G successful might well take note.
But among industry insiders, it seems, the only certainty is that data services which require such things as licenses and network upgrades also entail greater expenses, untested applications and a new round of experimentation with handsets and how they should be used. Of course a few operators are averaging more money per user, but that tends to be on more proprietary systems like those in Japan.
The slowdown in the general telecom market also brought a sense of urgency, if not quite desperation, to those who gathered in Taipei for IEEE's recent GlobeCom 2002. Operators, handset makers and content developers want to see data services enjoy the kind of success they are having in Japan and Korea.
Of the world's 70 million mobile-data users, 80 percent are in Japan, noted Kurt Hellstrom, president of troubled mobile-phone giant Ericsson. "We are just starting to see the growth in mobile data. It starts with camera phones and sending pictures and one day this will be a natural way of communicating with each other," Hellstrom said. "Nobody on the inside has ever expected that this [data services] technology shift would take place overnight."
Yet it will happen a bit more quickly if the industry can pull itself together, observers said, and overcome political divisiveness on such issues as interfaces, protocols, formats and content billing.
For instance, 69 operators, mostly of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) networks, have launched multimedia messaging services (MMS) based on 3GPP standards, said J.T. Bergqvist, executive vice president of Nokia Networks. In terms of network interoperability, he said, the technical issues have largely been solved, opening the service to a potential base of 300 million users. Now "it is a question of [business] agreements between the operators" that will slow things down.
And for 3G, Bergqvist said, "We as an industry have not, by and large, been able to create something that is transportable from one operator to another. We have not created something yet where two operator systems would be interoperable. We have not created open interfaces in those data-oriented systems, particularly in Japan and Korea."
Such bottlenecks are, in some cases, causing frustrated operators to look for a shortcut to data services. That's what happened with Taiwan's KGT, which finally opted to purchase i-mode.
In December 1999 KGT was the first to launch the Wireless Application Protocol in Taiwan. Then in September 2000 it introduced GPRS, which was followed in August 2001 by an integrated GPRS over WAP portal called iGoGo. KGT launched i-mode in June 2002.
Executives at KGT believe the WAP protocol failed because it was primarily developed by a voice service community to help fill the gap of mobile data, making it a subset of voice.
WAP started as a value-added service and never took center stage where wireless data should have been, said Leslie Koo, chairman and chief executive officer of KGT. Handset consistency was an issue because each WAP handset had different versions of different browsers from different software vendors, so it was pretty much impossible for a carrier to provide consistent service to multiple handsets with various interfaces, Koo said.
"Sometimes your e-mail would work with Nokia handsets, but not with Ericsson's. And once you fine-tuned it to Ericsson's, then Motorola's had a bug. So you are caught constantly running around and finding answers from no one because your vendor will tell you, 'No, that's not my problem, it's the handsets.' Then the handset manufacturer will tell you, 'No, it's not the handsets, it's the browser.' And the browser manufacturer will tell you, 'Sorry, that's an outdated version of the browser, which is no longer supported.' "
Meanwhile, customer complaints are rolling in, he said. This leaves the carrier wondering whether it should be a wireless-access provider, a portal provider or a service integrator of "all these very complex vendor solutions and software solutions and content platforms. It is almost impossible to manage. No wonder WAP never took off," Koo said.
For better or worse, with i-mode, at least there are consistent standards for technical applications and business execution.
"These are not the best standards in the world, but they are standards that all i-mode service providers will follow," he said. "They not only include the content format but also the specs to handset manufacturers. So this is the first time that the carriers can ask the handset manufacturers and also the system integrators to provide an end-to-end solution that will meet the service requirements of delivering a consistent, high-quality service."
Common business sense suggests that the industry would learn from such a solution. So far, however, that remains questionable. "In the past, the industry, perhaps, has been guilty of just selling hardware. Glorious IDs," said Brian Holmes, a product-marketing director for Motorola (China) Electronics.
"But in this future world I speak to, design no longer specifically speaks to just hardware. It is about understanding consumer experiences and how they want to use the product, and actually doing application design specifically around the mobile environment and targeted at specific consumers. If we don't do that, as an industry we will disappoint."
Asia, in general, has had the best rollout of data services so far. In Japan and Korea, networks and, more importantly, services are nearly commonplace. And mobile-data networks are rolling out in places like Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, where mobile penetration (measured by SIM card subscriptions) is nearly at or above 100 percent, which is far above many Western countries.
Even in Asia, however, some network operators think that trumpeted promises of video-streaming services won't, in reality, pay the bills at least not yet. In certain markets based on highly proprietary systems, such as i-mode in Japan, there could be some exceptions, of course.
During a visit to Taiwan, NTT Docomo president and chief executive officer Keiji Tachikawa told IEEE Communication Society members that in Japan even cats and dogs will eventually participate in mobile chic.
Is such a scenario farfetched? Well, in a country that created the robotic dog, Aibo, it doesn't seem so crazy to imagine that man's best friend, if lost, would be found with the help of a GPS device that tracks an RF chip implanted in its collar. "The potential demand for mobile services is enormous if services could be applied to objects rather than people," Tachikawa said.
But given the realities of today's telecom slowdown, and the sensitive nature of the rollout stage for data services, where end users' first impressions are long-lasting, many operators will not assume that Japan's experience transfers easily.
If operators are to learn anything from Japan, it is that, to pay the bills, they should focus on the small stuff, such as Hello Kitty multimedia messages, rather than on the promise of video teleconferencing. "Trying to do full, 30-frame-per-second video, for example, on a GPRS network is probably not in the cards given the current level of compression technology," said Motorola's Holmes.
Yet, as the future shapes up video teleconferencing might actually be close to realization. Operators as well as handset providers and network equipment vendors are cozying up to the notion that IEEE 802.11 access should be a part of 3G. Ericsson's Hellstrom called it a "complementary" technology. Bell Labs fellow Qi Bi said, "Incorporating Wi-Fi into the third-generation system is an important part of the system design. 3G can provide ubiquitous coverage and Wi-Fi can cover the hot spots."
NTT Docomo's Tachikawa also factored Wi-Fi into his company's 4G plans. During his keynote to GlobeCom, Tachikawa revealed a few details of what NTT Docomo thinks 4G networks should do and how they will look. "We are thinking of using a cellular system because we plan to build it by extending the coverage and mobility of the 3G system," he said. "On the other hand, in low-mobility areas, such as indoors and in hot spots, it may be necessary to introduce a solution that incorporates wireless LAN-type technology for data transmission at even higher speed."
Fourth-generation systems should offer a peak speed of more than 100 Mbits per second in stationary mode, Tachikawa said, with an average of 20 Mbits/s when traveling. Network capacity should be at least 10 times that of 3G systems. In practical terms, that would quicken the download time of a 10-Mbyte file to one second on 4G, from 200 seconds on 3G, he said, enabling high-definition video to stream to phones and create a virtual-reality experience on high-resolution handset screens.
In the meantime, it's a good bet that operators will focus on early returns on investment, no matter how unglamorous the application might be. Since operators are used to a more-traditional role as connectivity providers rather than content providers let alone creators they will likely look to MMS as a workhorse revenue provider for 2.5G/3G data services, just as SMS is for 2G data services.
Many will be conservative, suggested Herman Rao, vice president of service network and enabling technologies for Taiwan's FarEastone Telecommunications Co. Ltd. "We know how to make money on connectivity, but we do not yet know how to make money on content. So the challenge for operators is on the content business and services model."
Rao, too, suspects that such simple applications as location-based maps, entertainment services and news will be the key to early 3G success. "Bandwidth is not as critical as equipment vendors try to make us believe," he said. "Video streaming won't be that important."
So like it or not, Hello Kitty and smiley faces may be the way forward. And that idea might not be such a stretch, since NTT Docomo is already moving on to enabling cats and dogs.