I-Mode: The Web on a Mobile Telephone?


I-mode provides a web-like service on a mobile telephone screen. It was introduced in Japan in 1999 by NTT DoCoMo and is the most successful wireless web service world wide. On 10 November 2004 Telstra launched an i-mode service in Australia, under licence from DoCoMo:

Telstra group managing director, consumer and marketing, David Moffatt said i-mode has more than 165 content sites available across 13 categories, with this expected to increase to more than 200 sites over the year ahead.

Telstra officially launches i-mode service, By Kristyn Maslog-Levis, ZDNet Australia, 10 November 2004, URL: http://www.zdnet.com.au/news/communications/0,2000061791,39166044,00.htm

Telstra provided news, email, travel, banking and games in conjunction with content partners. While the service had 45 million subscribers in nine countries, almost all of these are in the original Japanese market. Australia is the first English speaking launch of i-mode. Similar phone-based services have failed as consumer products in Australia, the USA and Europe. So it is not clear if i-mode's success in Japan will be repeated in Australia.

i-Mode Phone in Action

Initially two handsets were offered by Telstra: the NEC N410i and the Panasonic P342i. These are typical "clamshell" phones, the NEC N410i being larger and having a larger screen of 240 x 320 pixels (2.2 inchs or about half the size of a business card).

Handsets developed for i-mode in Australia are GSM/GPRS ones, with software added to display i-Mode content. They can also display some non-imode web content.

Telstra had a display of i-Mode telephones in Canberra in December 2004. These photos show the Telstra display, with the distinctive yellow i-Mode logo, the larger NEC handset and content displayed on the NEC screen (photographs courtesy of Norm O'Meara).

Telstra i-mode display

Telstra i-mode display

Telstra is attempting to create recognition of i-mode as a brand, with the i-mode logo prominently displayed. However, this may cause more confusion for the consumer, as it is in addition to Telstra's existing non-imode mobile phone services. As it is, customers have to choose between GSM and CDMA phones. They will now have to choose between CDMA and GSM, with and without i-mode. Other mobile phone companies do not have this complexity (while not offering the customer as wide a choice).

As with any phone-based web device, the i-mode user interface is limited to a numeric keypad and a few extra keys. The NEC handset, as with most modern handsets, has a cursor pad with up, down, right, left buttons and a "select" button in the centre. There is a dedicated "i-mode" button for activating the I-mode service. Most navigation is with these. There are two "soft keys" which change function according to labels on the bottom left and right of the screen. There does not appear to be any "page down" function, making it difficul to scroll through long pages.

Handset Example

NEC N410i handset

NEC N410i handset

The screen displays 12 lines of text, approximately 29 characters wide (note that the actual screen is clearer and brighter than the photo shown).

The web page shown is not one created for i-mode, but a design for the rival WAP2 standard. It is feasible to create web pages which will display on both i-mode and WAP2 phones as well as on a conventional desktop computer web browser. Versions of HTML are used for all of these devices and by using a suitable subset, web pages will display on them all.

A web page on an NEC N410i handset

A web page on an NEC N410i handset

While basic web pages can be displayed on WAP2 and i-mode, some features are not compatible. For example both WAP2 and i-mode have shortcuts which allow menu items to be selected by pressing one of the number keys (0 to 9). But this is implemented differently by WAP2 and i-mode. A WAP2 menu will display on an i-mode phone, but the shortcut keys will not work. The user can still activate the menu item by pressing the down arrow and then pressing "select" on the highlighted item. But this requires several key presses in place of one.

There is also some incompatibility in image formats between WAP2, I-mode and desktop web browsers. The standard image format for WAP2 is PNG and for i-mode is GIF (later versions allow for JPEG). PNG images did not display on the NEC phone. The phones have limited memory and pages with large JPEG images will not load. In any case, as the phones have small screens (and high data charges) they are not suited to displaying large images.

The Web on Phone

Australian mobile phone subscribers already had access to web-like services on their mobile telephones before the introduction of i-mode, with Optus' "Zoo" and Vodafone's "live!":

... Now you can experience fantastic full colour pictures to go along with your news, sports and entertainment stories. Instead of reading about "that dress" (or lack of it) at last night's party, see it and judge for yourself. ... Love + Life ... Sport news & results ... News ... Finance ... Weather ... Chat ...

What is Vodafone live! Mobile Internet, Vodafone Australia, 2004 URL: http://www.vodafone.com.au/vlive/about_info.jsp

Vodafone provides its web-like content in WAP format, which is provided for in most Australian mobile telephones. Recent phones use WAP2, which is closer to I-mode's CHTML (Compact HTML) format. Vodafone handsets display a softkey for connection to Live!, equivalent to i-mode's dedicated button.

Optus' equivalent service "Zoo", is also provided for PDAs as well as mobile telephones and this version of the service can be displayed via a conventional web browser:

Screen print of the Optus Zoo service front page, Optus 2003, URL: http://www.optuszoo.com.au/handheld/

Cost and Content the Limiting Factors?

Two factors which have limited mobile phone information services are the cost and availability of useful content. Telstra charge casual users 2.2 cents/kbyte for i-mode browsing and downloads. This is the same fee as for WAP browsing and is similar to that charged by other carriers. This is more than 100 times the cost of data on a wired service ($0.15 per MB for Telstra ADSL).

One significant difference between WAP and i-mode charging is the session fee. Telstra charge 22 cents each time a WAP session is started (other carriers charge simialr fees). There is no session fee for i-mode, but there are per item, or subscription charges for some content (about 50 cents per item or a $1.00 per week). These charges are comparable to i-mode charges in Japan, where the service has been successful. However, it is not clear if this will translate to Australia.

In theory all of the content on the web is available on a mobile phone. Web pages can be designed to display on a mobile phone, as well as a desktop computer. However, most sites are unusable on a small screen with a limited keyboard. Also content providers encourage phone users to use the branded (and additional charge) content. This limited content resulted in the failure of WAP based information services. It is not clear if i-mode will be able to provide enough English language content to be successful.