Bradner's column: Three means a trend

In March, Japan became at least the third country after Israel and Finland to have more people subscribing to mobile phones than fixed-line phones.

In a harbinger of things to come, The Wall Street Journal reports that a factor behind the recent surge in mobile phone use is a service that lets users surf the Web from their cell phones. Yet this service is not based on the highly touted Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) technology.

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone already has 5.7 million subscribers on its year-old "I-mode" service and is on track to double that number by year-end. This is more than 10% of the 56.8 million subscribers to mobile-phone services in Japan and is quite impressive when compared to the 55.4 million subscribers using analog phone lines in that country.

The Internet Engineering Task Force had a talk about I-mode at a recent IETF meeting. It was one of three plenary talks on different approaches to Internet support on mobile devices. The other talks were about WAP and a pure Internet connectivity model for mobile devices.

The I-mode talk was informative and cute. The speaker demonstrated an I-mode Karaoke application. The words to a song are displayed on the cell phone screen and the music (if that is what one calls the tinny sounds that can be played on such a small speaker) emanates from the cell phone, so the user can sing along. I'm glad they don't allow cell phone use in airplanes.

I-mode is NTT's proprietary approach to bringing the Internet to mobile devices. The major standards-based effort is by the WAP Forum (www.wapforum.org), which is defining the WAP. However, both approaches seem unwilling to accept the Internet to which they are trying to connect.

WAP in particular assumes there are servers in the network - generally provided by the service provider - that mediate communications between the user and the Internet. It also assumes the protocols between these servers and phones are not based on Internet standards. A rationale for this design is that limitations related to bandwidth and screen size mean that directly connecting to, for example, CNN's Web page would not result in anything useful. But a byproduct is that a service provider may be able to control what servers its customers can connect through and reduce users' flexibility to pick services and applications.

Even with these limitations, cell phones with Internet connectivity look like they will become a major way for users to access the Internet. I-mode has already made NTT the biggest ISP in Japan. This trend may have a significant impact on all the Web sites that seem to think their users have gigabit connections to high-resolution displays. That would be a blessing.

Disclaimer: Smart people can still design dumb Web sites. That may or may not apply at Harvard, but the opinions are mine.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached sob@sobco.com.

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