Content at Sea

Anyone who thinks the econtent industry staid and boring with nothing new and fresh happening needs to get up and fly to Japan immediately. There, you'll witness an econtent revolution so profound it impacts even before the cabin doors open at Narita Airport. As the seatbelt signs turn off, dozens of Japanese passengers begin flicking and clicking, while disembarking, on their beloved i-mode equipped mobile phones. Without pause, they happily access the econtent they've craved during the long international flight. The future of the econtent business is now and its in Japan.

By now, most econtent professionals know of NTT DoCoMo and the i-mode service they (and several competitors) provide. Some i-mode basics: compact mobile phones have built-in, several-inch, color screens displaying real-time, compact HTML Web pages with static and animated GIF images. Many Japanese Web sites feature i-mode sections and users do virtually anything that can be done on a computer screen: read news, email, check train schedules, access company intranets, trade stocks, play interactive games, search Currently, almost all i-mode users are in Japan and most i-mode Web pages use the Japanese character set. Importantly for Japan's econtent providers, DoCoMo works with 3,000 partners providing premium content options.

Until you witness the sheer scale of saturation, you can't imagine the extent of the econtent industry transformation going on right now. On a recent visit to Tokyo, I regularly found half my fellow train passengers engrossed in i-mode. Anywhere people have a free moment, i-mode comes out: at intersections, between innings, in the taxi, before class, waiting in queues.

The numbers are staggering. NTT DoCoMo alone boasts 32 million i-mode subscribers, not to mention those on other services. That means close to half the Japanese population now uses an econtent service that is hardly even known in North America and Europe.

Imagine what such a world would mean for your organization's content plan or development of your information products and services, because its likely to come sooner than we think. When i-mode or a similar service takes hold in English, and it will, the econtent industry will change. Paid services, corporate intranets, and Web sites will reorganize and reformat content to suit small screens, lighter graphics, and minimal numbers of words. Even culture and what's acceptable public behavior will adapt. Certainly, new companies will spring to the forefront of the revolution and become major players in wireless econtent. It may be easy to say, "yeah, but it's different in Japan." But I disagree: I lived in Tokyo from 1987-1993 and learned to pay attention to the Japanese as early adopters, not comprehenders, of technology. For example, digital cameras, CDs instead of records and tape, and the Walkman all took off in Japan way before North America and Europe.

Do you use a BlackBerry? A wireless Palm? They're terrific tools, but because of a lack of purpose-built content, they're mostly used for email and calendaring in North America. Except for small pockets like Wall Street and high-tech executives, there isn't critical mass for wireless content yet, which means no pressing need or market opportunity for econtent companies to reformat (or re-envision) for the much smaller screen.

Outside Japan, people tend to have a love/hate relationship with their wireless devices. I, like most people who use them, love the freedom and flexibility to be in touch when on the road. But too often, the struggle to get to the good bits of a Web site or to find the point of a long email message make me curse the damn thing. I recently participated in The Marketing Forum, a three-day cruise-to-nowhere aboard the QE2. As hundreds of marketing and advertising professionals boarded, much of the conversation centered on the fact that attention was being focused on the event because ship-to-shore phones ran ten dollars a minute leaving passengers out of touch. Woo-Hoo! We all have an excuse for not checking in! Little did we realize that the huge ocean liner would spend most of the event hanging three miles off the coast of New Jersey—within wireless range. Those who had them snarled at their wireless econtent machines because the call of civilization was difficult not to heed.

Thumbing away on the aft of Deck One on the QE2, I contrasted the frustrations of many people around me that differed starkly to the rapt attention most Japanese pay to their systems at every available moment. Yet, it became clear that a major reason why Japanese wireless has taken off is the wide availability of well-organized and well-formatted—usable and compelling—content. Japan has econtent optimized for wireless while the rest of the world doesn't.

The revolution has already begun in Japan. Will you and your organization be ready when it reaches our shores?