Bye WAP… Hi-Mode

Do you remember VHS? Of course you do. But what about Betacam or Beta 2000? Do you recall those formats? Probably, but only vaguely.

Do you realize that all three formats arrived at about the same time? And that Betacam and Beta 2000 were considered to represent equally high-quality video formats? (Betacam later evolved as Betacam SP, used for broadcasting.) VHS was considered to be the low-quality video format, and nobody took it seriously. But for some strange reason VHS became the market leader — so much so that it’s still considered to be the pre-eminent video format. Why? For two reasons.

First, VHS was simple to use. It didn’t have any superfluous features that defied the average user’s understanding. Second, and most important, VHS distribution was outstanding. The team behind VHS managed to tie up distribution deals with all the right players, making VHS popular even before it was launched. Its popularity, in fact, was formed, to some degree, independently of the format’s actual quality.

I probably don’t have to remind you of parallel cases, like the Palm versus the Newton from Apple. The Newton was a complex PDA that could do almost anything. You could draw with it, record data with it, store pictures with it — everything. But the Newton was too complex for the market when it came out. Consumers were simply not ready for it. But they were ready for the Palm, a dramatically simplified Newton, the use of which everyone could understand instantly. And again, the Palm’s distribution was over the top.

Now, what does this have to do with Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and i-Mode? A whole lot! WAP allows users to access information instantly via handheld wireless devices. i-Mode is a packet-based service for mobile phones offered by NTT DoCoMo. Both enable web browsing.

WAP sort of won the first round of the competition between the two. Even now, WAP is still confused by consumers as being a synonym for the wireless Internet. But, of course, it’s not. And i-Mode is managing to change that perception.

WAP is the more advanced of the two. It’s based on a platform that is substantially more complex than the one upon which i-Mode is based. WAP has many more features and is much more flexible than i-Mode, which represents very simple technology.

Ask programmers about i-Mode, and they’ll laugh! But consumers understand it because they know how to use it; it’s user-friendly. You couldn’t say the same about WAP, which, as I write this, is weathering a tough time in most of Europe. On the Continent, consumers are slowly realizing that WAP isn’t the answer to everyone’s wireless dreams.

But what’s most interesting to note is that i-Mode is rapidly overtaking WAP’s position. This is not only happening because of WAP’s complexity and i-Mode’s simplicity but because of — you guessed it — distribution.

Lately, NTT has acquired a Dutch telecom company, has been in negotiations with a U.K.-based company, has closed a deal with AOL in the United States, and is reaching the end of negotiations with AT&T in the United States about acquiring a major stake in the market-leading telecom company.

Now, imagine that all these deals reach fruition. Imagine combining this achievement with the fact that 12 million consumers already use i-Mode in Japan. Imagine these things, and you’ll probably reach the same conclusion I did.

Bye WAP! Hi-Mode!

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