Hello i-mode

NTT DoCoMo Wants to Follow You Everywhere

- Part II

- by Kyoko Fujimoto -

On February 22, NTT DoCoMo launched a cellular phone-based information service through which subscribers can access the Internet and receive online services using a cellular phone. Dubbed "i-mode," this service allows subscribers to use special cellular telephones equipped with large-screen LCDs to receive digital data as well as make regular voice calls.

From cell phones for talking to cell phones for using," says Koji Oboshi, the chairman of NTT DoCoMo, "this is where the cell phone market is going. Voiceless communication is sure to exceed voice communication in the future." Many cellular phone companies already offer cellular or PHS-based e-mail services. However, the i-mode service from DoCoMo is the first to offer online services, including mobile banking and trading, via a small cellular phone unit.

Besides regular cellular phone functions, the i-mode service includes e-mail, Web access, and the ability to receive special content provided by partner companies. For the e-mail service, the customer is furnished with an easy-to-remember e-mail address that has the customer's cell phone number in the usual username location, followed by "@docomo.ne.jp." E-mail messages can be sent and received from regular Internet e-mail accounts and from other cell phone-based e-mail users, but the messages are limited to 250 Japanese characters. The key advantage offered by this service is the adoption of the packet transmission system (9,600bps), with the customer being charged only for the data actually sent or received. For example, an e-mail message containing about 15 Japanese characters would cost only ¥1.

Further, websites around the world can be accessed with the i-mode service simply by typing in the site's URL (uniform resource locator). Although most graphics and pictures cannot be seen, the receipt of WWW text through this tiny cellular phone without the hassle of setting up and configuring a computer should prove convenient. And with packet transmission, the customer will not be charged while reading the Web page text; once the information has been downloaded, reading the data on-screen is free.

NTT DoCoMo is putting special emphasis on the content services available. As of January 22, sixty-seven corporations had announced plans to participate in this service as information providers. Several banks will allow customers to check their balances, and two securities firms are participating in the stock information service. Partner airlines and travel agencies will provide flight information and online reservations, and FM radio stations will offer program and music information. Other information providers will offer daily updates of news and weather, and customers can get access to restaurant guides, train timetables, and NTT's Town Pages (yellow pages). Other companies plan to provide fortune-telling and online games. Subscribers can also register for a message service, providing periodic reports on the latest news and stocks. All these services can be accessed simply by pressing the little "i" button on the i-mode phone.

The Digital Mova 501i Hyper, a cellular handset specially designed for the i-mode service, went on the market at the same time that i-mode was launched. Three different models are available, all including LCDs that display at least six lines of text and eight characters per line. This relatively large LCD screen makes the Digital Mova 501i slightly bigger and about 12g heavier than the latest models of other cell phones, but DoCoMo expects it to become as light as other models (about 70g) within a few years.

NTT DoCoMo is charging ¥300 per month for the i-mode service, which includes ¥200 as the basic fee for packet transmission service, and ¥100 as the i-mode usage fee. The packet transmission usage charge will be ¥0.3 per packet of 128bytes (approximately 50 text characters). Typical e-mail transmissions will cost from ¥1 to ¥4, and other services such as online banking, receipt of weather forecasts, or checking flight availability will be about ¥20 to ¥30. Among the 40 million current cellular phone users, DoCoMo expects to recruit 2 to 3 million i-mode subscribers by the end of the year, and 10 million within a few years.

DDI and IDO will also start offering content-based services this April. Their services will use WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) whereas DoCoMo's is based on compact HTML (hypertext markup language - the standard used on the Worldwide Web). Several other cellular telephone companies are expected to offer WAP-based services later this year. Unfortunately, WAP and compact HTML services are incompatible, and which one will become the standard remains to be seen. This boost in voiceless communication services, however, is sure to expand the already huge mobile telephone market.

For more information, visit DoCoMo's English website at http://www.nttdocomo.com.

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