I-Mode: Tale About a Standard for Mobile Devices

SAN MATEO (07/24/2000) - I'm not enough of a sociologist to tell you if it's a human trait or just an American one, but in the States we always seem to be waiting for the knight in shining armor to save us, and that's also true in the wireless world.

The knight-errant sits astride a golden steed atop a mountain. The armored horse raises up on its hind legs, pawing the air as the dark clouds and lightning threaten in the background. Finally he charges down the hill to the rescue, and, if you look closely, you'll see he's holding the NTT Docomo Inc.'s i-mode phone.

The impression that road warriors come back with after traveling to Japan is that the i-mode service is the answer to all their wireless problems.

Using an open-data platform, i-mode allows any content supplier to easily participate. For users, i-mode-enabled phones come pre-loaded with a menu and simple directions. A user follows the prompts that are on the device without having to worry about an ISP or which version of the OS is installed.

Cost is relatively low because it uses a packet-based system that is always on and NTT Docomo, like BellSouth Corp. in the States, charges only for the bits downloaded rather than incurring connection charges.

The service uses what one road warrior with i-mode experience calls a "proper" subset of HTML. I've also heard it called compact HTML, but curiously, the company's Web site never uses that description.

Whatever. Everyone says it is easy to set up and easy to use. I am assuming here that all the road warriors who e-mailed me are bilingual, by the way.

The percentage of users in Japan accessing the Internet via desktop is one of the lowest among developed nations. To many of NTT Docomo's 8 million i-mode subscribers (a little more than a third of NTT Docomo's 21 million-plus customers), i-mode is the Internet.

And because NTT Docomo, the mobile arm of NTT, has little if any competition as a mobile ser-vice provider, whatever technology the com-pany develops for the i-mode service becomes the standard. This makes it much easier for content providers and accounts for the high adoption rates of the approximately 100 new sites coming online weekly, according to my sources.

And what's good for business-to-consumer sites is also good for business-to-business. For example, many companies looking to deploy a wireless strategy to a nontechnical field service force unfamiliar with PC operation will admire its standard platform, its pervasive deployment, and its ease of use. It's as easy as filling out a form manually but with the added capability of leveraging networks on the back end automatically.

If you go to the NTT Docomo Web site (www.nttdocomo.com), you'll see the company's brief instructions: "The only requirement for making a Web site viewable by i-mode terminals is that it be created using i-mode-compatible HTML."

But in the spirit of any good monopoly, do you detect a note of arrogance in the concluding comments? "Please note that NTT Docomo does not offer Web site development services." Other than packet-based rather than circuit-based service, the real differences between i-mode and, let's say, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) are not in technology, but in execution. In concept they are quite similar.

So to bring us back to reality, let's summarize. What we have here, as far as I can see, is a wireless platform that uses a subset of HTML and requires rewritten Web sites in order to be viewed comfortably on a cell phone display that gives users access to only a subset of the Internet. It has a good deal of intelligent user-interface design behind it and far fewer, if any, competitors caviling about its shortcomings.

And the truth is that NTT Docomo is a member of the WAP Forum, although there is no major support outside of Japan for the i-mode platform. Without the support of the major players in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Europe, i-mode, for all of its pluses, will never be pervasive.

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