I-mode delay spells bad news for Euro mobile users

The arrival of DoCoMo would have forced European operators to up their game, according to analysts
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

NTT DoCoMo's decision to delay the European launch of its i-mode services is bad news for mobile users, according to experts who were looking to the Japanese giant for innovation.

DoCoMo had previously said that it hoped to launch i-mode in Europe before March 2002, but on Tuesday it admitted that this would not happen. It blamed the slow rollout of GPRS services, and claimed that local network operators are having trouble getting i-mode to work on European systems.

DoCoMo manager Midori Matusbayashi said i-mode would probably launch in Europe by the end of 2002, but warned that it would be hard to offer compelling services if operators were unable to get GPRS working effectively.

The delay is bad news for DoCoMo, which is trying to move beyond its Japanese power base and achieve global dominance, but analysts believe it is also a blow to the whole European mobile Internet industry.

"We were hoping that DoCoMo would bring its business model, such as the way it shares revenue very fairly with third-parties, and its micro-billing system -- where European operators are currently woefully inadequate," said Simon Buckingham, analyst at Mobile Lifestreams.

DoCoMo's mobile Internet services are hugely popular. It has an estimated 25 million subscribers, who use i-mode to read Internet content, trade shares and play games. Users pay a small charge for accessing data, and there is strong anecdotal evidence that Japanese schoolchildren are spending so much on i-mode that some fast food restaurants are suffering from a lack of business.

Buckingham agrees that the European i-mode delay is caused by GPRS problems. Consumer GPRS services launched earlier this summer, but there are still very few compatible handsets available. The networks are also slower than originally promised --and although they should make WAP surfing a bit faster they are still too slow to support more innovative mobile Internet services such as video streaming.

"GPRS is a useful intermediate technology, but it won't save WAP," said Buckingham. "It will make nowhere near as strong an impact as 3G".

Operators should begin constructing 3G networks soon, but many experts believe that commercial 3G services won't be available until at least 2004.

Find out more about what's coming up in the wireless world with ZDNet UK's Special Report: The Road to 3G.

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