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Where Are They Now? i-mode

i-mode is a mobile internet technology as well as a business model. It’s still around in its original form, and one famous company co-opted its foundational ideas to create a very successful mobile ecosystem.

This is the second instalment in ‘Where Are They Now?’, my occasional series about old mobile messaging technologies.

Back in 1999, whilst we were still planning the rollout of the first WAP services here in the West (more of that in a future piece in this series), NTT DoCoMo in Japan had launched i-mode.

Unlike WAP 1.0, which created a proprietary mark-up language for mobile websites, i-mode took a different route. First it used a cut-down form of HTML, c-HTML, which meant simple sites could work on an i-mode device, and existing sites could easily be repurposed. It also meant these sites could work on your PC browser.

And they added email.

The service was a huge success. In 1999, it was still relatively uncommon to have home access to the internet, even more so in Japan where it was especially costly. So many Japanese consumers’ first experience of the internet was on their phone.

WAP 1.0, which launched at roughly the same time, struggled with a very poor user experience, and a lack of services. I recall the stark contrast when I was working in Tokyo. I had a loaner phone (Japanese networks were not compatible with roaming devices in those pre-3G days.), and I was bowled over by the range of services on the device compared to my UK WAP service, which had very little for me.

But the biggest aspect of the i-mode model was revenue share.

At that time, the only option for purchasing goods or services via your phone was PSMS (premium SMS), which charged the purchase to your phone bill. PSMS has a number of challenges, particularly the disconnect between the charging mechanism and the content delivery, that make it less than ideal.

i-mode solved this problem with a revenue-share business model, building a content charging mechanism into its service. This meant that content providers could easily monitise their services (sports scores, weather, games, ticket booking, etc.), and that made i-mode a very attractive proposition.

After the failure of WAP 1.0, the West looked to Japan, and DoCoMo exported the service concept to 100+ operators around the world. However, few saw the success that i-mode did.

By then, home internet speeds had increased, subscription costs had decreased, and the internet experience on your phone really looked very poor.

It would be a few more years before a California company would be hailed as reinventors of the mobile, when it delivered a device that offered phone and internet and email, with a revenue share-based app store.

The only difference was that in Japan, DoCoMo took a 9% revenue share. When the service came to the West, O2 UK took just 14%. Considering that Apple (today) takes 30%, that’s a pretty big difference.

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