The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Marc Steinberg: The Genesis of the Platform Concept: iMode and "Platform Business” in Japan

Marc Steinberg, Concordia University

We live in a time when it seems that Silicon Valley has a monopoly on platforms, and that the US is the centre of platform theorization (in economic and management studies, and in media studies). This situation poses the problem of what Dal Yong Jin (2015) aptly terms “platform imperialism” - critiquing the global power dynamics of platforms that affect both societies and cultures around the world. Sidestepping the immediate implications of the seemingly global dominance of US platforms, this presentation with seek to present a somewhat different view of platform development. That is, this presentation will argue for some historical and geopolitical perspective, suggesting that we must look to Japan in the 1990s to find the genesis of current platform discourse and platform practice (or creation). There are two sides to this argument, the discursive and the practical.

In terms of platform creation or practice, this presentation returns to the exemplary case of iMode. Launched in 1999 by Docomo, the mobile branch of Japan’s former telecommunications monopoly NTT, iMode brought the mobile Internet to cell phones and to users in a major way. Along with its then lesser rivals J-Phone (now SoftBank) and KDDI (now AU), Docomo’s dominant iMode service brought millions of people into contact with the Internet - many for the first time - and veritably formatted their experience of the mobile Internet. As its chief proselytizer and theorist Natsuno Takeshi repeats on many occasions, “iMode is a business model, not the name of a system” (2003, 125). For Natsuno and his iMode co-creators, what they offered was a service that was technologically enabled, but fundamentally a service rather than a technology. More importantly for this conference, iMode was the very embodiment of a multisided market or platform. While today iMode-style “feature phones” are often disparaged in the Japanese press as “Galapagos cell phones” (garakei) in contradistinction to the newer Android or iOS-powered “smartphones” - these phones are smartphones in all but name, and were used as models for Apple's iOS and Google’s Android project. As such they formatted the experience of the Internet as a commercial space where one pays for content - presaging and arguably modelling a time when the iTunes Store and Google Play would mediate the global consumption of content (whether books, moving images, or apps).

iMode, as Natsuno explains in the early 2000s, was a platform. Deploying then-popular chaos theory in one book, and, more presciently given the current rage for the term, the ecosystem metaphor in another book, Natsuno argues that the reason for iMode’s success was its creation of a market for content that successfully facilitated the connection of content providers to consumers. Taking a 9% cut of sales for their trouble (and making Apple and Google’s 30% seem excessive), Docomo facilitated the purchase of ringtones, wallpapers, games, news and other informational commodities on a subscription basis, billing consumers for their purchases, and profiting heavily from the data traffic generated by the use of iMode. The more people used iMode, the more content providers would try to offer their services and products; the more products and services there were, the greater the reason to choose iMode - and standing in the middle, mediating it all and benefiting from data traffic stood Docomo. Before the dominance of iOS and Android, there was iMode as a powerful platform and gatekeeper. If the 2000s seems to be an era of contents in Japan, it is because the platforms were established in the form of iMode, as well as J-Phone and KDDI’s parallel services. We might conclude, then, that one of the beginnings of what this conference aptly calls the Platform Society is to be found in the set of relations created between Internet consumers, content producers and telecom companies in the form of iMode.

Moving on to theory, this presentation will turn to the author’s surprising and delightful discovery that the 1990s was also the moment during which platform theory emerged in Japan within business and management discourse. From 1993-4 when several essays and an edited collection on “Platform Business” was first published (Deguchi 1993, Kokuryo 1994), to later work from the 1990s to the present, a vibrant and fascinating body of platform theory developed in Japan. While Japanese authors read and sometimes cite Anglo-American sources, it would seem that American and European scholarship on platforms comes both later, and with a relative focus on technologies, at least until the Rochet and Tirole's pioneering work in the early 2000s. Japanese scholars, by contrast, develop a focus in the 1990s on the function of platforms (particularly Internet-mediated ones such as auctions) as intermediaries and as the sites for multi-sided markets, retrospectively referred to as “Interaction-type platforms” or mediation platforms (Negoro and Ajiro's “An Outlook of Platform Theory Research in Business Studies”). In other words, we find a very early theorization of platforms of connectivity that marks a profound shift from the prior emphasis on platforms as technologies or technological base (the latter being tendency which still marks the treatment of platforms within media studies).

From the two angles of both platform practice (iMode) and platform theory (Negoro, Kokuryo, etc), it seems that a case can and should be made that we should trace the development of the platform concept to Japan - or, at the very least, through Japan. That is to say, to narrate the “genesis of the platform concept” we need to think of Japan as not only the side of production of platforms in the merely and rather limited hardware sense of the term - VHS, DVD players and game consoles - but the site of experimentation in the creation of platforms as multisided markets, and the site where platform in this latter sense is theorized from a very early stage. Whether or not this changes the fundamental issues surrounding the geopolitics of US platform domination - this presentation will briefly suggest it does - this certainly does require us to think about how we narrate and theorize platforms differently, and in a distinctly regional key.


Deguchi, Hiroshi (1993) “Nettowaku no rieki to sangy­ō k­ōz­ō” (Network Merits and Industrial Structure), Journal of the Japanese Society for Management Information 1(2): 41-61.

Gillespie, Tarleton (2010), “The Politics of ‘Platforms,’” New Media & Society, 12(3): 347-364.

Imai, Kenichi and Kokury­ō Jir­ō, ed. (1994) ­Platform Business, InfoCom REVIEW (Winter).

Jin, Dal Yong (2015), Digital Platforms, Imperialism, and Political Culture, New York: Routledge.

Natsuno, Takeshi (2003), I-Mode Strategy, translated by Ruth South McCreery. London: Wiley.

Natsuno, Takeshi (2005), The i-Mode Wireless Ecosystem, translated by Ruth South McCreery. London: Wiley.

Negoro, Tatsuyuki and Satoshi Ajiro (2012), “An Outlook of Platform Theory Research in Business Studies,” Waseda Business and Economic Studies no.48: 1-29.

Rochet, Jean-Charles, and Jean Tirole (2003) “Platform Competition in Two Sided Markets,” Journal of the European Economic Association 1(4):990 –1029.


Marc Steinberg