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i-Mode: What you didn't know and were ashamed to ask about

A popular in Japan technology… or a standard of cellular connection? Or an Eastern version of EMS for exchanging smiles and ringtones? Or is it a special walkie-talkie, and the islands are small also? All of us have heard something about i-mode already, but only a few know actually what it is. The majority though knows nothing and wants to know nothing still - why do we need this overseas wonder? We now offer to acquaint with the main concepts.

i-mode is not just a shell or only a technology for comfortable control of the services. That is more some kind of a combination of progressive technical solutions, a good model of integration of various services and genius marketing. The result is to the fore: now more than 45 million users all over the world use the technology, 3 thousand companies take active part in the system functioning. The services realized include almost all ones available via a usual PC today: from accessing mobile internet and e-mail to booking plane tickets and paying for goods and service. In Japan the system is offered via 2G and 3G networks by NTT DoCoMo, but gradually it penetrates to other countries like Germany, France, Holland, Australia, Belgium, Italy, Spain and now Russia - and that is not a complete list. The payment turnover reaches several billion dollars, and is to form about 10 billion in 2005. Last year Japanese subscribers paid 1 billion dollars only for extra content received via i-mode. About 30 percent of Japanese people use i-mode service 10 times a day or more.

From the very beginning i-mode was modestly called "a system for mobile access to the internet". It was developed by NTT DoCoMo and appeared in 1999. Later appeared rival technologies on the local market - EZWeb (the company of KDDI/AU), Jsky (J-Phone). And Vodafone Live after Jsky was bought by Vodafone. Mari Matsunaga, Enoki and Takeshi are considered the "parents" of i-mode.

In fact, nobody surely knows how the "i" letter appeared in the service name. There are more than 100 words sounding like "i', and one of the meanings is "love". The letter can be considered even a good graphical symbol - "resonant" and well to remember trade mark of the brand. The DoCoMo's founders tell about the "i" standing for "information", "internet". And its very probable, all other versions are just consequences of successful marketing operations with the brand.

Technically, i-mode primordially represented an addition to a usual mobile network for batch communications. For 1999 that was a revolutionary solution, though that data transmission speeds now rouse a indulgent smile. However, the speed is easy to increase; now the 3G FOMA (DoCoMo) network provides 384/64 KB/s speed of receiving/sending correspondingly. Several years ago European WAP was not considered a rival for i-mode due to the key advantage of the Japanese technology - batch communications. Ad correspondingly, tariffing for the received data size, not for the duration of connection.

Paying for the service doesn't strain, since nobody demands much money in advance. Just came into the magazine's resource, read an announcement of an interesting article, "took" to read and paid little. Many of us do not know about online payments even today, and this very scheme is functioning in i-mode for many years. Physiologically, the scheme is perfect - nobody will grudge 20-30 cents for reading an interesting magazine, and how many of these cents will be in the end of the month is to know later. By the way, these everyday cents mix with general bills/expenditures on connection.

From the subscriber's point of view, i-mode is a single control center for handling services, access to them and various supplemental information. At first sight is resembles a today WAP-portal, though i-mode is much richer functionally. For instance, e0mial and services for exchanging pictures and melodies are primordially integrated into the i-mode structure. The system is quite flexible and can be tuned for a certain corporation, frequently, i-mode is used to control trade flows, warehouse stocks and so on.

It's hard to have a look at "live" i-mode pages, but quite possible due to special PC-emulators. The other fact is it brings no sense, especially if you can't read Japanese hieroglyphs. Even if you can, too many blank spots. The corporate i-mode solution "emoji" is graphical replacements for some words, phrases or emotions. Their number gradually grows, and they can mean everything from quite evident emotions (sadness, happiness) to such difficult statements as "hot spring" and fast "train". Following the link you can get some notion of the i-mode page.

And a traditional question, why is i-mode so popular? If to take the whole system to pieces, we won't see anything radically new, all the resources and services can be in this or that way realized in traditional for Europeans ways. Especially on today phones. The Japanese try to explain the i-mode phenomena the following way:

  • Low price for an "entry ticket". Simple phones fully supporting i-mode really cost little
  • High level of mobile connection penetration. From about 70 million subscribers about 21 million of real users of i-mode in Japan - not such a little society.
  • Japanese people love technical innovations
  • Comparatively low level of home PCs penetration. And truly, for this high-tech country the number of PCs is very low per head. The reason is the majority of really necessary internet-services are got from mobile terminals.
  • Micro-billing system. You can pay for the access to information and services through the terminal.
  • Easy and attractive entrance to the system. You don't need any great money to participate as a VAS vendor (Value Added Services)
  • Integration to the system of important internet-applications. In some way i-mode can be considered an all-sufficient system. E-mail and exchange with ringtones/pictures, mobile chats/conferences and so on naturally satisfy the majority of internet-necessities of the Japanese
  • Fashion and effective marketing

And finally, the right writing of the word. The Japanese write "i-mode" in various ways - completely in their alphabet katakana, Latin characters, a combination of a Latin character and katakana, a combination of graphical symbol and… In genera, there are many variants. In official DoCoMo's documents in English we see "i-mode", that is how the majority of the Europeans write. But according to GOOGLE, about 32% of English speaking people write "imode".

Sergey Potresov (sergey.potresov@mobile-review.com)
Translated by Maria Mitina (maria.mitina@mobile-review.com)

Published - 12 August 2005

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