Surprisingly, competition for the GBA comes from an unexpected challenger. Which device is sold by the millions, has a low cost, and is also handheld? The cell phone, of course: There are just millions of them, and they keep getting better all the time. When looking for interesting trends, always keep an eye on those devices that have large installed bases. They have a clear potential of becoming "the next big thing." As an example, the ratio between the leading game console and the cell phone is, in most countries, around six to one: There are six cell phones for each game console.
First generation cell phones were big and heavy, and had nothing to do with handheld gaming. They were just pretty simple communications platforms, offering only limited messaging capabilities via Short Message Service (SMS) in some countries. But each new standard brought new features to the market in the typical fast evolution pattern that arises from fierce competition. With so many phone manufacturers and carriers, it is not surprising that cellular telephony and phone-based services have evolved at such speed. For some years, Nintendo could have benefited from the lack of open, worldwide standards in the phone gaming arena. European and American phones had traditionally worked with different systems, which prevented any gaming initiative from reaching the broad consumer base otherwise captured by handheld consoles.
But phones equipped with Java began to surface by the year 2000, and their hardware specs grew accordingly. Today, phones equipped with 64MB of RAM and the processing power of a 486 or Pentium CPU are not uncommon. And what can you do with such a device? You can play Quake, Age of Empires, and many other games. In fact, playing on a phone has a competitive advantage over the classic PC or console experience. The phone is at the core a communications device, so the path to connected, handheld games is clearly marked.
The first success story on mobile gaming platforms has to be NTT DoCoMo's I-Mode service, launched in Japan in 1999. It is a subscriber service where users pay monthly fees to access different types of mobile content, from small applications like a map service to downloadable games. Fees are small so the use is compulsive, and colorful handsets with large screens offer a relatively sophisticated delivery platform for mobile games. I-Mode was an immediate success, and by April 2002, the service had more than 32M subscribers (with more than 28,000 new users per day). The key to its success is great content, a meaningful business model where content is paid per download (as opposed to connected, per-minute charges), and very low barriers of entry for content developers. I-Mode is based on standards such as HTML and Java, so many companies jumped on the bandwagon from the beginning.
As an example of typical I-Mode content, take Samurai Romanesque, a medieval role-playing game (RPG) played on I-mode terminals. Using information from the Japanese weather service, the game is able to sense the current weather right where the user is standing. If it's raining, the gunpowder used by your character in the virtual world will get wet, and you won't be able to use any firearms. Cell phones have access to any online information and also know about the user's location. This is unique to the cell phone medium: No other gaming platform can offer such a rich gaming experience.