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O2 brings i-mode to the UK

Mobile internet at the touch of a button - is this the end of the line for WAP?

At a surprisingly low-key industry event in central London this week, mobile phone operator O2 unveiled its launch strategy, introduced many of its brand content providers and confirmed the handsets and pricing structure for the launch of its i-mode mobile Internet service. MobileIndustry.biz was on hand to see the service demonstrated, chatting to some of the one hundred or more companies who have already signed up and created i-mode websites in preparation for the October 1st launch date.

i-mode is by no means a new concept; the platform was originally developed in 1999 by Japan's largest mobile phone operator, NTT DoCoMo. i-mode websites are specifically designed for the small screens and limited memory of mobile phones, using compact HTML (cHTML); a subset of the HTML language used to develop traditional fixed Internet sites.

Because the system is less complicated than WML (used for the current mobile Internet service, WAP) developers are free to create far more complex and original content, safe in the knowledge that one site will function in exactly the same way on all i-mode devices. Many developers creating content for WAP phones have often complained that several versions need to be created for different devices, increasing development time, costs and restricting content design.

The i-mode service has many more benefits, both for content developers and consumers, as the system is based on secure open Internet standards and allows safe transactions ranging from simple subscription services for games, ringtones etc., to booking hotels, flights, restaurant reservations and checking bank balances via the mobile handset. This extension of possible applications compared to WAP has attracted a substantial number of high profile companies wishing to provide content for i-mode, and has certainly helped make the service a success in Japan.

Although i-mode has been available for some time in several European countries including France, Spain and Italy, the public perception has been noticeably less inspired in these territories. One possible justification for this might be the general disappointment in terms of speed, accessibility and availability of content on WAP, as well as an imbalance in subscription charges and general billing confusion.

In order to combat this and differentiate i-mode from WAP services like Vodafone Live! or O2 Active, the operator is keen not only to promote the vast additional functionality of i-mode (including the ability to send and receive emails in a similar fashion to the Blackberry device), but also to create a uniform pricing structure for content; simplifying the billing process and in doing so, aiming to encourage far more customers to try the service without fear of poor content availability and, perhaps more importantly, unnecessarily high bills.

Mathew Key, chief executive of O2 stated: "i-mode gives us a very strong differentiator because it's based on some very simple customer feedback. Namely, if people are going to really use mobile Internet services, they need to be far easier, faster and populated with a far richer range of content from brands they already know and trust."

"The i-mode experience in other countries shows that this new depth and breadth of content, combined with the speed and simplicity of use, leads to far higher customer usage. For example, research has shown that seven out of ten people who buy i-mode handsets use the service, compared to just three who use the available WAP services on their handset," he added.

O2 certainly has the "depth and breadth of content" sorted out, with more than 100 well known brands offering content on the service from launch, with many more to follow. Each of the companies we spoke to about the service were incredibly impressed by the simplicity of creating an i-mode site, the diversity of content they were able to offer compared to WAP, and the generous revenue sharing structure that O2 has set in place. Currently, content providers will enjoy the substantial rewards of an 86/14 percent revenue share with O2. Given the average development cost for creating a single i-mode site is as low as GBP 10K, and the number of potential customers who can be reached through O2, it's no surprise that companies are eager to get on board.

In terms of pricing for the consumer, O2 have set a limit for the monthly subscriptions of just GBP 3.00 per site, which is extremely competitive, given the nature of premium content available. Browsing i-mode sites is free, and any chargeable content is clearly highlighted to avoid any unwanted costs. What's more, O2 have been careful to outline the process for cancellation of service subscriptions and implemented a parental control system to prevent minors accessing content or subscribing to monthly services without permission.

Sending email and MMS messages without attachments will cost the same as it does on O2's current tariffs (10p on pre-pay and 12p on contract) while email and MMS messages with attachments will cost 25p. A range of discounts will also be available on all tariffs for high usage customers, using O2's standard SMS and MMS 'bolt on' service.

The service will initially be available on a choice of four handsets - two NEC models (NEC343i and NEC 411i) and two Samsung models (Samsung S500i and Samsung Z320i) which incorporate a range of additional functions such as still camera and video recording, MP3 player and enhanced Java capabilities. The handsets vary in price, depending on their functionality, but with the exception of the Samsung Z320i, will be available as a free upgrade for contract customers.

To encourage use of the service, O2 has prepared a generous free trial for the launch of i-mode, offering free content and downloads, and up to ten free service subscriptions until the end of 2005. In addition, sending email and picture messages will be free until April 2006. The company's existing WAP service, O2 Active will continue to be available on all other handsets, although it is expected that i-mode will eventually replace traditional WAP services in the future.

So far, we've been incredibly impressed by the i-mode service O2 is about to launch. The handsets are stylish and extremely functional, the range of services and brand content available easily surpasses anything currently available through WAP, and the pricing structure is both sensible and affordable, which should entice most UK customers to at least try the service when it launches in October. Although Japan's mobile market is far more advanced than that of the UK, it looks like O2 are ready to push the UK market forward with a service which is fast, secure, broad ranging and highly accessible. It could well be exactly what UK customers need.

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GamesIndustry International is the world's leading games industry website, incorporating GamesIndustry.biz and IndustryGamers.com.

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