A High Tech Surprise From Japan

It's a quintessential dot.com, complete with charismatic players, a spin-off with a hot stock, a huge market cap, and an amazing technology that gives millions continuous wireless Net access (no dial tone needed) for a few bucks a month. Americans proud of their high-tech acumen might naturally think it's another Silicon Valley saga. They should think again. DoCoMo is Japanese, and its success in building what may be the most advanced mobile Internet system anywhere should give the U.S. pause. A decade of leadership in personal computers and the Net may be breeding a degree of high-tech hubris that the country can ill afford.

The blunt truth is that the U.S. has been behind in wireless for some time. In the handover from analog to digital, Finland's Nokia Corp. grabbed the lead. In the new race for wireless Net access, Nokia remains ahead among telecom players. But Japan, blindsiding just about everyone, is a new contender. Investors, mostly American, are pouring funds into DoCoMo's stock, pushing its market capitalization to an astonishing $335 billion, larger than Toyota or Sony.

DoCoMo's success signals a changed, more innovative Japan. In the '90s, the U.S. viewed Japan the way Japan looked at America in the '80s--as uncompetitive, lagging in new products and fresh ideas. The Japanese were wrong then. Americans risk making the same mistake now.

DoCoMo's chief executive, Keiji Tachikawa, is part of a new generation of Japanese innovators. The most famous, of course, is Masayoshi Son, head of Softbank, who seeded Yahoo! Inc. and a whole slew of U.S. Net startups. Some, like Son, are setting up their own companies. Others, like Tachikawa, with a PhD in engineering from University of Tokyo and an MBA from MIT, are building independent operations inside large corporations than can be spun off. Japan may be entering a new phase of high-tech innovation, especially in the next generation of higher-speed, broadband, wireless Net cell phones.

America and Europe should take note. No one knows how mobile Net access will evolve. Both personal digital assistants, such as the new Palm VII, and cell phones are vying for customers' attention. This much is certain, however: Japanese technology is now key. Japan is back in the game.

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