Industry First Contribution: In-App Purchase Capable Application


While at Dwango Wireless, I had the privilege of leading the implementation of the mobile industry’s first application capable of in-app billing. Star Diversion (Shown in the video) was launched in the U.S. market in May of 2003, a freemium version was pre-loaded on the NEC 515 and later on the NEC 525 handsets. It ran on DOJA 1.5 (aka DoCoMO Java), an iteration of J2ME that was used in Japan. Star Diversion was the most advanced mobile game in the U.S. market when it was launched, years ahead of it's competition in terms of the speed of game play, graphics and overall user experience. At that time many people were still using a Motorola StarTAC flip phone with a non-color LCD displays. The mobile industry has really come far, in a relatively short period of time.

Great graphics and game play aside, the most unique aspect to this game, is that it was the first application in the mobile industry to utilize in-app purchase, years before Apple and Google.


If a customer wanted to upgrade from the free trial version to the full version, they simply had to select upgrade enter their pin code. They were charged seamlessly on their phone bill. The other levels of the game were unlocked and the customer did not have to download the application again. Downloading a new version of a game was a an issue of consumer resistance on the slower 2nd generation networks of the day. Seamless in-app purchases may seem commonplace today, but in 2003 it required complex business negotiations between multiple companies. In this case, it was NEC America, DoCoMo USA, AT&T Wireless and QPass (Now Amdocs). 

Making this happen in 2003, required a little out of the box thinking. We utilizing a billing protocol originally meant for premium SMS messages. Premium SMS had been used for years before downloadable applications were able to run on mobile devices, but the knowledge for the more robust billing options for SMS was silo-ed with the teleco veterans, rather than the new generation of mobile software engineers. While having a discussion with a developer, who specialized in premium SMS messaging; I discovered the billing options, made the connection, put a plan to work, and the rest is history! 


The end product was the first pre-loaded application on a mobile device that could be upgraded from a trial version to a paid version. This resulted in the highest conversation rate of a pre-loaded trial to paid application in the industry, and was the precursor to in-app billing that is a staple of the modern mobile application ecosystem.