Perhaps the greatest disadvantage that Microsoft has in trying to become a major force in the mobile world is that one of the key concepts of that market, the 'ecosystem', is alien to it. Windows thrives on being a dictatorship, while the dominant mobile players sit at the center of huge webs of mutually dependent partnerships, all contributing to the products and the chain of business. This was made very clear this week when NTT DoCoMo, the most experienced company of all in building ecosystems, laid out new plans for its next generation handset architecture - plans that embrace Linux and Symbian, and specifically exclude Microsoft.
DoCoMo's handset standard
No cultures could be more opposed than those of Microsoft and DoCoMo. The Japanese operator created the model, now eagerly emulated by the likes of Vodafone, whereby the cellco takes the leading role in defining its requirements for its handset, software interface and infrastructure. DoCoMo engages in extensive R&D into advanced cellular technologies in a bid to drive next generation networks and influence the manufacturers, and often helps to fund the R&D of its partners to speed time to market and reduce its own costs.
On this basis, it builds an ecosystem of developers, device makers and content providers and, in the case of its iMode content delivery platform, partner operators around the world. All a far cry from the Microsoft world where new releases of its technologies are presented with limited consultation to PC makers, developers and customers.
In that sense, it was not surprising that DoCoMo's new handset architecture will not support Windows. DoCoMo plans a single architecture that will support either Linux or SymbianOS, virtually transparently to developers and manufacturers. It is responding to accusations that its platform is too complex to develop for, and too fragmented. The technology, developed with Matsushita and NEC on the Linux side, and Fujitsu for Symbian, will be the standard for all DoCoMo 3G models.
This is a significant boost for mobile Linux, and in particular the MontaVista version favored by the handset makers. Despite the availability of a few Linux phones from companies like Motorola, mainly geared to the Chinese market, the open source operating system has made little headway in smartphones. It lacks the powerful backers of Symbian and Microsoft and presents a more complex option for phone developers, with less high level functionality incorporated than its two rivals. Texas Instruments, for instance, refuses to categorize it as a high level OS because it requires so much customized work by the handset maker.
But Linux plays well to the operators' overriding aim of reducing costs, especially as the likely revenues to be derived from 3G shrink before their eyes - as does the creation of a single architecture that should reduce manufacturers' costs and prices. Handset subsidies are one of the most important factors in the cellco business model, and a technology that reduces them can be as important as one that enables new revenue generating services. For instance, in DoCoMo's second quarter, ended September, revenues fell 4.1 per cent but profits rose because, by selling fewer handsets, the company had also had to pay fewer subsidies.
Another way to try to reduce these costs is to work with other operators to negotiate collectively. DoCoMo is trying to build on its network of partnerships for iMode, which include KPN of the Netherlands, Telefónica of Spain and Bouygues of France, to create such a bargaining machine.
It is said to be close to a licensing deal with O2 in the UK (with which it has been having on-off talks for a year) and the newly expanded Cingular Wireless in the US. A broader alliance between the iMode partners, going beyond simple licensing of the content platform, could achieve economies of scale in handset purchasing by acting as a consortium as well as establishing an international brand to rival Vodafone Live!. This group would be in a strong position not only to negotiate pricing with manufacturers, but also to impose design directions on phonemakers.
Such groupings are increasingly common - the Freemove Alliance of Orange, T-Mobile, TIM and Telefónica, and the Starmap Alliance of tier two cellcos led by O2, both have pooled price negotiations among their objectives. And DoCoMo already works with Vodafone and many other major cellcos in the OMTA, a group that seeks to set design specifications and requirements for handset makers.
The iMode ecosystem
All these groupings overlap, but all have the same goal of reducing the power of the handset manufacturers, and cutting the prices of their devices, and therefore the subsidies that operators have to offer their customers. If DoCoMo aims to build an international alliance around iMode, the most logical step, as we have pointed out before, would be to take the driving seat in the Starmap Alliance, which needs to attract more heavyweights, and is already in talks with Cingular. This would give DoCoMo greater clout in its bid to establish iMode as a brand outside Japan, to rival Live!
But while iMode has 42m subscribers in Japan alone, generates $10bn in profit and accounts for 25 per cent of the DoCoMo's traffic, the company knows it needs another killer service to reverse the decline in its market value and to help it fend off challenges from launches by Vodafone and SoftBank and the threat of Japan introducing number portability next year.
Currently, it believes that could be the FeliCa 'mobile wallet', which allows a handset to use very short range wireless links to make cashless payments for goods, could be that breakthrough. Credits can be bought in advance, in the same way as pay-as-you-go units, and the phone is then waved at special terminals in shops or other outlets to make automatic payments. Takeshi Natsuno, head of DoCoMo's multimedia services unit, calls FeliCa "a bid for the future of DoCoMo" by making phones into 'life tools' and so greatly reducing churn. The goal is 1.5m users by March and 10m a year later, a similar growth rate to iMode in its early years.
DoCoMo is already starting to build a new ecosystem around FeliCa. One thing is clear - it will not include Microsoft.
Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch
Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.