I-Mode a No-Go for Euros?

I-mode wireless data services, a huge hit in Japan for NTT DoCoMo, will finally be launched in Europe this April. But, with faster, always-on networks and multimedia services now becoming available in Europe, has i-mode missed its fifteen minutes of mobile fame?

Analysts have already questioned whether i-mode can repeat its phenomenal Japanese success in the very different European market. In its domestic market, NTT has signed up more than 20 million subscribers since i-mode launched in late 1999.

But the technical lead that i-mode had over WAP is being eroded, with widespread packet-based networking available and the coming multimedia messaging service (MMS) specification, which enables users to send color images over their mobile just as they would a text message – just like i-mode.

“I tend to think that i-mode is definitely a bit late," says Amrish Kacker, senior consultant with Analysys Consulting.

I-mode services will initially be launched in Germany by KPN Mobile subsidiary E-Plus Mobilfunk. The German operator has a ten-year licensing deal with NTT. It will launch i-mode first on its General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network and then launch third-generation systems as they arrive.

Subscribers to the i-mode service will be offered a colorful package of applications and content similar to the ones that have been so popular with Japanese users, including ringtones, maps and travel guides, games, and images. Subscribers will be supplied with phones from NEC Corp. with dual browsers that can handle both i-mode and WAP services, which currently use different scripting languages.

KPN says its subsidiaries in Holland and Belgium will follow E-Plus Mobilfunk’s lead and launch i-mode this year. KPN was originally supposed to launch the service last year but held off, blaming the delay on the slow rollout of GPRS.

Despite the delays, Kacker warns against counting out i-mode entirely. After all, he notes, NTT DoCoMo is so far the only operator that has developed a really successful model for new data services. They didn't simply stumble on a business model, which is what European operators did with SMS text messaging.

However, in Europe, E-Plus will not have the advantage of one of the central pillars of i-mode's Japanese success. Because NTT is the dominant mobile operator in Japan, it was pretty much able to impose specifications for its networks and applications. “Independent application developers in Japan are very clear what they are developing for,” says Kacker. E-Plus and KPN will not be able to dictate terms in the same way in Europe. “Because the market is so fragmented, they can’t duplicate the model."

This will be doubly true in the U.S., when AT&T Wireless finally gets around to launching i-mode services stateside, probably sometime this year. The operator has reportedly been mulling a trial run in Seattle.

Back in Europe, E-Plus will actually be importing Japanese content to be localized for the German market and working with domestic developers on applications.

Kacker sees this as one the major benefits of i-mode's spread beyond its homeland: Well respected developers will come, too. “The good things that will come out of this are going to come from developers; they are obviously not just going to stick to i-mode applications."

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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