This week has seen both Telstra and O2 in the UK ditch NTT DoCoMo's i-mode mobile content service after adopting it for just two years. Is this a good sign or a bad sign for the Internet on mobiles?
i-mode is something of a phenomenon in Japan, one of the most -- perhaps the most -- advanced mobile markets in the world. DoCoMo, the company behind i-mode, is the biggest mobile operator in the country and it has most of its users on i-mode -- so why didn't the service take off over here?
Let me start by saying it's not a bad service but it was doomed to fail outside Japan, nonetheless.
I would gamble that timing is one of the main issues behind its demise. When DoCoMo launched i-mode in its home market back in 1999, WAP was, alas, not yet a distant memory in mobile world. i-mode was a much more user friendly and sensibly-priced alternative -- a hit because of its pocket money prices.
It was six years later when Telstra and O2 launched their own versions of i-mode and the mobile Web had moved on considerably in the interim. Operators now had their own more user-friendly content portals and had begun to erase the stain that WAP has left on mobile subscribers' consciousness.
As well as phones that offered users a chance to view content in so-called "walled gardens", handset makers were beginning to sell devices with larger screens, designed to offer open access to the Web and an experience much more akin to that of surfing on a PC.
When i-mode debuted in the UK and Australia, it almost appeared a step backwards, harking back to the bad old days of an Internet constrained for a mobile platform.
O2 blamed the failure of the service on lack of compatible handsets and that's certainly a part of it. The phones O2 launched with tended toward the low-end, yet the concept of spending up to three pounds a month to access a single i-mode site is anything but. It's even more incomprehensible when compared to flat-rate bundles that operators like O2 offer, which provide far more data access for the same price as two i-mode site subscriptions.
Education too probably played a part. Post-WAP, consumers have gradually become comfortable with Web access on the move -- another technology standard only served to blur the lines.
Telstra gave a different reason for deciding to end its i-mode licence, saying the service "is not compatible with the future direction of the Next G network" and is encouraging any i-mode mourners to get their content fix from BigPond Mobile.
As time has passed, mobiles are ever more seeking to emulate the PC experience, and operators to mimic Web content providers. i-mode's version of the mobile Web simply didn't fit with that vision.
The mobile Internet is dead -- long live the mobile Internet.