It's I-mode, Jim, But Not as We Know It

AT&T Wireless launched its mMode service in twelve U.S. cities this week. MMode is a consumer-oriented GPRS-based wireless data service that is trading on the name of NTT DoCoMo’s phenomenally successful i-mode offering in Japan.

However, for all the razzle-dazzle of AT&T's "mlife" ad campaign, mMode really isn't much more than a color WAP (wireless application protocol) offering. It lacks the underlying sophisticated billing software that has helped make i-mode so popular with developers in Japan, enabling them to make money on their content and applications via micropayments. These payments, usually less than a dollar, are charged directly to the consumer’s phone bill. The carrier and the content provider split these download fees (for more on this kind of billing system, see Vodafone Launches Micropayment Billing).

The mMode service will enable consumers to wirelessly access email, instant messages, news, driving directions, and games (all the usual suspects) over AT&T’s general packet radio service (GPRS) network in cities such as Chicago, Seattle, and Las Vegas. AT&T says the service was jointly developed with NTT DoCoMo, which holds a 16% share in the Redmond, Wash.-based carrier.

However, mMode does not yet support a micropayment billing system or the compact HTML (cHTML) protocol that developers use to create the wireless content sites that populate NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode network. Essentially, mMode gives us a taste of what i-mode will be like when it hits U.S. shores later this year, but it's not the real thing yet. "Well yeah," says AT&T Wireless spokesperson Rich Blasi. "But it is based on a lot of the features they have."

The dual-mode cHTML/WAP microbrowser and micropayment billing system, which will kick the service up a notch, will be in place by the summer, according to Blasi. AT&T hopes to offer mMode nationwide by the end of this year.

Currently, content developers can make some money off the mMode premium service, which offers users downloadable games at $2.99 a pop. However, the developers need to get a user’s credit card details in order to charge for the content.

AT&T has two pricing plans for the initial mMode offerings. The basic plan costs $2.99 a month for the service plus two cents per kilobyte of data downloaded, which works out to more than $20 per megabyte of data downloaded. Alternatively, the subscriber can buy data "buckets" each month -- either 1MB per month for $7.99 or 2MB per month for $12.99 -- and pay extra if they use more than their allocated allowance. The company plans to calculate how much data each mMode user has downloaded every 24 hours, then round it up to the nearest kilobyte.

But will users be happy about lost kilobytes when the carrier rounds up the total each evening? "The bottom line is that people will get used it," Blasi says. AT&T is confident that the plans will allow people to download a lot of data, he added.

However, one of the phones being offered with the mMode service is the Ericsson AB T68. The T68 is a Bluetooth phone, which means a subscriber can use it as a wireless link when downloading data onto suitably equipped handheld computers and laptops.

Subscribers using the mMode phone to read emails or text messages will probably be downloading only 20KB to 50KB at a time, so they are unlikely to use up a 1MB data allocation in a hurry. However, if they are using their mMode phone as a Bluetooth link and downloading email or surfing the Web on their laptop, then it would possible to burn their data allocation very fast indeed (see Commentary: Cut Those Crazy GPRS Prices!).

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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