I always look forward to the presentations by our Japanese media colleagues about their mobile phone strategies. They are the undisputed world leaders in this field. When many places on the planet weren’t even using cellphones for SMSing/texting, these guys had mastered delivering content on mobile phones and were making a solid business from it.

Japan’s Asahi Shimbun is one of the world leaders when it comes to mobile content. The newspaper has a massive circulation of around 16-million readers (8-mill for morning edition, 4-mill for the evening edition). In fact as these outrageously large figures were presented by Asahi’s Atsushi Sato to the mainly European audience at the IFRA conference in Dublin, there was an audible gasp around the room. To top it all off, Asahi is only the second biggest newspaper in Japan. I’d just hate to see how big the biggest paper is. Japan also has a big internet market. According to the World Factbook in 2002 Japan had more than 50-million internet users, the second biggest internet country behind the US. There are around 100-million mobile phone handset users in Japan.

Sato says Asahi offer 12 different mobile sites, which more than million subscribers visit. Some of the sites they offer are not only based on Asahi’s own content, but also content from partners, and even competitors like CNN.com. Here, the model is to share the revenue. If I understood Sato correctly, Asahi’s business model was originally to charge their users via their cellphone bills in cahoots with the cellphone operators. But somewhere along the line this model changed and they could no longer do this, and this was impacting on their business.

One of the major obstacles Asahi are now facing is that some of the cellphone operators in Japan are getting increasingly involved in the content publishing game and are starting to promote their own mobile content properties ahead of Asahi’s own mobile sites. Does this sound familiar to you? It’s happening everywhere. For example, Vodafone via Vodafone Live! has had a particularly advanced mobile portal content offering, although much of its content is derived via partnerships from other media partners.

This is going to be a key issue for every publisher around the world as the mobile platform grows in significance as a content vehicle. Media companies have somewhat of a tussle on their hands as cellphone network operators start being more than just service providers, but increasingly offer their own mobile content portals to users. Competition is a good thing, but as long it is fair. And the issue is that, while mobile phone users are not excluded from surfing outside the network operator content portals, they are strongly guided to them via dedicated buttons on the handset and strategically placed icons and bookmarks in the phone’s operating system.

Could this be a new area of domination and monopoly, much like the way Microsoft has been accused of dominating the operating system by pushing its software products to the exclusion of others? Is this what the mobile network operators are doing by pushing users to their own content portals via the handsets? I suppose a key difference with the Microsoft comparison is that cellphone operators don’t manufacture the handsets or the cellphone OS — but they have close relationships and leverage with the companies that do. Perhaps this will be a new battleground for legal challenges, regulation or maybe just more collaboration in the future?

Sato’s solutions are to create partnerships with the mobile operators and provide them with free links from the Asahi’s own mobile site. He also thinks that push-style SMS/Text alerts are a way to attract users to their mobile site and get his company’s mobile brand out there. He says Google’s mobile search and it’s mobile news aggregator (still in beta) is another area that is growing and will playing a role in generating traffic for their mobile site. He says Ashai have also employed SEO for their mobile sites.

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