Vodafone gambles on 'biggest ever launch'

The mobile operator takes Japanese-style mobile services back to the UK with a heavily marketed new service

Vodafone launched "Vodafone live!" on Thursday, kicking off the operator's strategy for simplifying access to services that use a range of technologies including WAP, SMS, MMS and later instant messaging (IM) and unified messaging (UM). The move -- described by the mobile giant as its most significant launch ever -- is designed to make access to content easier for its customers and has been praised by analysts and Vodafone partners. The company hopes its new full-colour, icon-based menu -- available on a range of handsets costing from around £200 -- will prove popular. Charles Dunstone, Carphone Warehouse chief executive, said: "Vodafone deserves credit for putting everything under one roof, using a simple brand. They've done a great job over the past two years to create a much more appealing consumer brand." Mainstream retailers will be pushing the brand, which Vodafone is hoping will become a household name. While content delivered using WAP pages has never been a huge hit and many GPRS phones never see high-speed GPRS data functionality used, hopes are high for this latest initiative. Ben Wood, Gartner senior analyst, said: "At last a network operator is trying to demystify access to some of these services. This is just the start." Vodafone live, which saw the second glittery mobile launch of the week on Thursday night after Orange, Microsoft and Sendo's smartphone unveilings on Tuesday, will be available to pre-pay and contract customers, both of which will get "m-pay" ability to buy content such as games, polyphonic ringtones (at up to £2.50 a pop) and applications such as maps. Most of the handset makers Vodafone deals with are expected to optimise terminals for the service. Three handsets are available at launch, from Sharp, Panasonic -- two partners of old in Japan -- and Nokia, which offers a version of the popular 7650 camera phone. Gavin Darby, Vodafone UK chief executive, said: "This story is about Vodafone investing in Japan, becoming knowledgeable about how to deliver entertainment and so on, and bringing that expertise back to Europe." He said Vodafone is happy Nokia is on board but pointed out that Nokia will also see benefits in working with the network giant across a number of countries. Free taster
Vodafone live will be available internationally with roaming, though service packages will differ across borders. "Some of the content that works here won't work elsewhere," Darby added. Vodafone has around 30 partners lined up for launch and expects over 100 by the new year. Gartner's Wood said there are "some great brands lined up", such as Namco and the Sun newspaper. An initial three month trial will mean no per megabyte download costs for early users, which will allow Vodafone gets to learn what consumers are doing before tailoring price plans precisely. Carphone Warehouse's Dunstone added: "That makes sense, giving people the opportunity to try it. It was like when Orange at first gave people SMS for free." A business equivalent of Vodafone live under the name Vodafone Mobile Office will be up and running from next month, though the company is expecting more demand for data cards and related remote working services. Vodafone live launches initially in Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK with Australia, Greece and New Zealand to follow in the new year.

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