101: NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode

Japanese MNO’s answer to WAP

i-mode, the system created by Japanese cellular operator, NTT DoCoMo, was one of the early success stories of the wireless world having acquired 29 million users by Q2 2002 in Japan alone, having started back in February 1999. The ‘i’ in i-mode actually stands for information but it is also a play on the Japanese word for anywhere. 

The big difference between WAP and i-mode is frequently overlooked: – i-mode is entirely proprietary technology whereas WAP is the result of co-operation between the major handset vendors and the software industry working together in the WAP Forum.

To create pages for the i-mode system, developers have to employ a special subset of HTML known as compact HTML (cHTML).

This is the direct equivalent of WML, the  Wireless Markup Language used to create WAP pages. Some observers claimed i-mode is simpler to implement.

The chief difference is that WML forms a subset of XML – a high level language that defines how information is stored.

The advantage here is that the data only has to be created once (in  XML) and can then fed to both WAP servers and HTML based Web servers.

With i-mode to achieve the same result you would need to create two entirely separate sets of data.

There were moves towards the creation of a single standard that unites both i-mode and WML (known as WAP version 2.0 or sometimes WAP NG – Next Generation) through a new language – xHTML, a version of HTML defined by the 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project).

The subsequent version of i-mode employs Java created in conjunction with Sun Microsystems and know as i-appli.

WAP was initially geared towards dial-up connections (before even GPRS came along) whereas i-mode has always used native Internet (IP) protocols.

This made it more like an ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) offering to WAP’s modem based alternative.

One of the biggest difference from WAP is that NTT DoCoMo achieved substantial revenues from i-mode.

DoCoMo also instituted a system of partnering with content providers; taking a nine per cent commission and adding the charges for sales over i-mode to the customer’s mobile telephone bill.

Furthermore, i-mode’s users are mostly consumers and the payments made are a matter of cents rather than dollars. 

Whilst NTT DoCoMo has signed up ‘official’ sites with which it shares revenues but there are also thousands of ‘unofficial’ sites.

Outside its native market, Japan, i-mode became operational in Germany (through E-Plus) and the Netherlands (through KPN Mobile).

Another KPN associate company, KPN Orange in Belgium was also due to launch. In North America, NTT’s partner, AT&T Wireless, has announced its intention to launch an i-mode based service.

A great deal of confusion surrounded the requirements for running an i-mode service.

In Japan, DoCoMo was originally using PDC as the air interface but there is no good reason why GSM/3G/4G could not be substituted instead.

However, i-mode does necessitate some form of packet (IP) based data connection.

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