DoCoMo's I-mode opens AOL e-mail access

The first fruits of NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s investment in the Japanese unit of America Online Inc. (AOL), which was renamed DoCoMo AOL Inc. earlier this year, will be realized this week.

The new AOLi service, to launch on Friday, will allow users of DoCoMo's I-mode wireless Internet service access to AOL e-mail. Existing AOL Japan users will be able to send and receive e-mail from their AOL account via their cellphones.

It is the first of a series of joint services being planned by DoCoMo and AOL that are supposed to blur the line between fixed line and wireless Internet services and promote the idea of access anywhere. The two companies are using Japan, the world's leading wireless Internet market, as a testing ground for the new services which are dubbed fixed mobile convergence, or FMC. Additional plans have yet to be revealed by either company, although extending AOL's instant messaging to cell phone screens is understood to be one of the applications being developed.

DoCoMo is also hoping to attract some of its 23.7 million wireless Internet users to the online service, which, despite the backing of America Online, big name content providers and four years in the market, has only attracted around 1 million members. Non-members will be able to sign up via I-mode for an AOL screen name which will be theirs to use free of charge for three months via the AOLi service or the company's Japanese Web portal.

I-mode already offers a basic e-mail service although the AOLi option will provide users with a little more functionality. While the 250 Japanese character limit on outgoing messages is the same for both services, AOLi users will be able to receive messages of up to 25,000 characters -- ten times the length of standard I-mode mail. Users will also be able to copy messages to up to 30 recipients -- three times the I-mode limit. The AOLi server will also be able to store more messages than the I-mode server.

Pricing details for the full commercial service, scheduled to begin in September, have not been revealed.

DoCoMo holds a 42.3 percent stake in DoCoMo AOL Inc., just ahead of America Online Inc., the second largest shareholder, with a 40.3 percent share. Mitsui & Co. Ltd. and Nihon Keizai Shimbun Inc., both original shareholders in AOL Japan, hold stakes of 13.2 percent and 4.2 percent respectively.