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i-mode 101
i-mode 101

Japanese people seem to be constantly on their mobile phones. However, they are using their handsets more for text messaging and surfing these days than for talking.

Until a few years ago, school kids exchanged little pieces of paper with messages on them in the classroom; today they exchange "invisible" and silent mobile e-mail, keying the messages in without even looking at the keypad.

Owning a cell phone has become an important lifestyle choice for most Japanese consumers. More than 50% of Japan's population own cell phones, adding up to 64.7-million total subscribers - which exceeds the number of fixed phone lines in Japan. Among these wireless consumers, more than 43 million have handsets with built-in Internet capabilities (Web and e-mail).

NTT DoCoMo, the largest mobile telecommunications carrier in Japan, clearly leads the market with 38-million subscribers as of September 2001, of which more then 27 million use DoCoMo's wildly popular wireless Internet ser-vice, i-mode. Introduced in February 1999, i-mode quickly developed into one of the most successful mobile Internet services worldwide. It was able to attract 27-million users in just two-and-a-half years from its start - and every day 50,000 new users are signing up.

What services make i-mode so attractive to consumers? First of all, you can do mobile e-mail, which is the most-used application by all age groups and both genders on i-mode. Additionally, i-mode is offering about 1,800 i-mode content services on its official portal, plus about 40,000 unofficial sites (often called voluntary sites or katte sites), which have been developed by content providers without the blessing of NTT DoCoMo.

Especially popular among i-mode users are entertainment-related content services (games, fortune telling, ringtones, and wallpapers), dating and community sites, and news and time schedules.

What are the factors that have made i-mode so successful among other wireless Internet ser-vices in Japan? Certainly, mega-cities such as Tokyo, with its limited space and long hours of commuting, are a nurturing environment for tiny mobile devices that people can use to kill time and communicate with friends and family anywhere, anytime.

However, this alone doesn't explain why i-mode has become the market leader. Having had an early mover advantage, the real key factors for the success of i-mode are based on the fact that NTT DoCoMo managed not only to control the network, but also influence the handset development and select the handset makers, select and create official i-mode content, and choose content providers.

As a result of this joint effort, NTT DoCoMo has been able to provide their users with a functioning network with enough i-mode handsets, a well-balanced content portfolio, and a billing agency service that allows micropayments to be settled conveniently and easily for both content providers and consumers.

Where mobile operators and service providers in the U.S. and Europe promised their customers to put the whole World Wide Web into their pockets by introducing a revolutionary technology called WAP, the creators of i-mode have always stressed that their service offers useful content services on top of voice communication on a cell phone, such as reading news and horoscopes, finding a good restaurant, and using mobile e-mail.

By being a consumer-oriented mobile data service rather then a technical standard, i-mode is dependent on neither its underlying technology (the HTML-based markup language or the packet-switched PDC-P network, for example) nor the device it is currently running on. It has been marketed by NTT DoCoMo as a service that allows consumers to communicate with each other and to access useful and interesting mobile Internet content.

The data-transmission speed on current 2.5G i-mode handsets is rather limited with 9.6Kbps, but the packet-switched PDC-P network is always on, which eliminates the need to dial up for connections, allows instant e-mail delivery to the handset, and gives consumers a safe feeling, as they pay only for transmitted data instead of time usage.

Hardware and Software
The average i-mode user can enjoy using these services on advanced handsets with large, high-resolution color screens, Java functionality, and a key panel that has been developed to provide smart navigation on small-screen Internet sites. It has been included on all i-mode handsets as a central four-way navigation tool in the middle of the key panel that lets users click as well as scroll up, down, back, and forward. The implementation differs from model to model, with some of them having a joystick, and others, a scroll wheel, a center jog or a four-dimensional flat button. All of them, however, support the two-dimensional movement that you need to browse sites.

All i-mode handsets also come with an i-mode button that leads the user directly to the i-menu ("one button i-mode Internet access") (see Figure 1).

The handsets come in fancy colors, such as fairy white, moonlight silver, and shell pink. The phone has been turned into a fashion statement, with a big industry behind it producing all kinds of accessories like phone straps with cute Japanese and international cartoon figures, stickers to put onto the handset body, and attachable antennas flashing in different colors.

All handsets include a number of ringtones and the option to download further melodies via i-mode. Some handsets like the Sony SO502iWM even have an MP3 music player and a memory stick built in, turning them into true multimedia gadgets.

In addition to the hardware and design features of an i-mode handset, there are many advanced software features provided. Most important, all i-mode handsets provide e-mail capabilities. As e-mail is a service that allows people to stay in touch with each other, it is a very popular service on i-mode, second only to voice. NTT DoCoMo provides two types of messaging services for its i-mode users: the older one is short mail, similar to SMS, and the newer one is e-mail that uses the SMTP and POP3 e-mail protocol.

Short mail has the restriction that it can only send and receive messages to and from other users on the NTT DoCoMo network. It's an older technology that was not originally part of the i-mode service. Technically, it actually calls a number to send the short message to the receiver's phone number. Short mail is restricted to 50 characters per message and all messages are a flat 0.9 yen (= 0.007 USD) charge.

The newer SMTP and POP3 based i-mode e-mail service allows users to exchange e-mail with anyone who has an Internet e-mail account. It allows a user to write messages with up to 500 bytes (500 English characters or 250 Japanese full-width characters) including the subject header, which is limited to 30 bytes. The newer handsets also allow users to attach ringtones or images to their i-mode mails, ensuring fun for the whole family!

Pricing for i-mode mail varies from sending and receiving a message plus the length of the mail. For example, sending a 500-character e-mail costs roughly 4 yen (= 0.03 USD) while receiving this amount of mail will be roughly 2 yen (= 0.02 USD). These prices are very affordable, hence the e-mail mania in Japan.

Semi-Walled Garden Concept for i-mode Content
However, aside from slick and fancy handsets and e-mail mania, the way the content and portal service has been designed as a semi-walled garden is certainly one of the biggest factors behind the success of i-mode. NTT DoCoMo has control only over what content will be allowed on the official i-menu (the portal - the walled part of the garden, which has about 1,800 sites listed now), while the unofficial i-mode content on the open Internet (the open part of the garden, which includes approximately 40,000 sites) is completely deregulated.

Users can access the official i-menu with a click on the i-menu button on the phone, and can expect high-quality services that have been carefully preselected and approved by the operator. In several categories such as news/weather, mobile banking and trading, traffic and travel, shopping and eating, and especially entertainment (games, ringtones, wallpapers), users can find and access rich services just by browsing through the menu (see Figures 2, 3, and 4).

Additionally, NTT DoCoMo has recently started a location-based service called i-area, which links users to sites that provide information about their immediate area. Currently, i-area includes information such as the local weather, restaurant guides, local maps, traffic conditions, and train times.

It's important to know that NTT DoCoMo does not buy the content that's being listed on the official menu from the provider, but only acts as an approving agency. Official content providers neither pay any fees to, nor receive any fees from NTT DoCoMo to be part of the menu. Therefore, their only source of potential revenue is to charge subscribers for accessing the content.

To give these content providers an incentive for offering such premium content, NTT DoCoMo offers official content providers use of the operator's billing agency service, which allows them to charge users for content without having to set up their own payment settlement system. For this service, the operator charges 9% commission on all subscription charges the content provider receives from their users, with 91% of revenue going to the content provider.

This mobile content business model gives the content provider a strong motivation to constantly improve their content services (thereby attracting as many subscribers as possible), while offering a relatively easy way to charge these users with the billing agency service offered by NTT DoCoMo.

For users, subscribing to and paying for these premium content services is very easy. The subscription is done in four basic steps:

  1. Clicking on the register link
  2. Inputting the four-digit i-mode password
  3. Proceeding to the password confirmation screen
  4. Returning to the i-mode site as a registered subscriber
From now on, the user is automatically registered as a subscriber and can access all premium services of that specific site. The subscription fee will simply appear as an additional item on the monthly phone bill for the i-mode handset - being paid conveniently and safely to NTT DoCoMo, which shares the subscription fee with the respective content provider(s).

The unofficial i-mode content, on the other hand, allows for creative content providers and personal users to easily create their own space on i-mode without any restrictions, which leads to a higher stickiness of the whole service. Everybody with sufficient technical knowledge can build and publish an unofficial i-mode site.

The biggest disadvantage of being unofficial is that users have to input the URL of the site to access it; there is no directory or search function for those sites on the i-menu. For those who are an unofficial site and wish to be found, there are services available such as GiGAFLOPS' GigaCode (http://gigahz.net/) service, which gives your site a unique number for quick access and searching instead of having to input the URL. As always, advertising is also a way of getting your site recognized, plus there are several print magazines released that review and list i-mode contents.

Unofficial content providers are not eligible to use the billing agency service of NTT DoCoMo to charge users for premium content, which makes it much harder for them to generate revenue from their content service. Neither are unofficial sites able to receive identifying information about users who visit their site, which official content providers are able to get. Accordingly, many content providers aim to become official i-mode content providers, and get approved to be listed on the i-menu.

i-mode Pricing
The concept of the semi-walled garden and the billing agency service for official content providers are part of the business model of i-mode, which also includes the pricing of the service. For NTT DoCoMo, the mission of i-mode was to create an easy-to-use, affordable, and useful data service on mobile phones.

Accordingly, the basic monthly subscription price for i-mode has been set to 300 yen (= 2.50 USD), about the price of a monthly magazine in Japan. For the monthly subscription price, consumers can access the official and unofficial i-mode content and send and receive e-mail. Of course they also need an i-mode capable handset in order to use the mobile Internet service.

Generally, the handsets have been subsidized by NTT DoCoMo so that i-mode capable handsets would not cost more then non-i-mode capable handsets - a clear marketing strategy to allow for a strong and quick rise of i-mode subscribers among NTT DoCoMo customers. Current i-mode handsets cost between 8,000 (= 67 USD) and 30,000 yen (= 251 USD).

For each data communication that occurs between the handset and the i-mode center (such as sending and receiving e-mail or accessing i-mode sites), users pay packet charges of 0.3 yen (= 0.0025 USD) per packet (128 bytes). Charges to access the i-mode menu are about 3 yen (= 0.025 USD), to read some news, about 28 yen (= 0.23 USD), to check a bank balance, about 23 yen (= 0.19 USD), to download an image, about 8 yen (= 0.07 USD), and to send or receive a quick e-mail of 20 characters, about 1 yen (= 0.008 USD).

On top of these fees, users have to pay subscription fees for premium content services on i-mode (about half of the official sites are premium content services that require a subscription to be fully accessed). On the official i-menu, charges for such premium services range between 100 yen (= 0.83 USD) and 300 yen (= 2.50 USD) per month and are always paid as a flat monthly fee, added to the regular monthly phone bill from NTT DoCoMo. On unofficial sites, fee ranges and payment methods - such as credit card payment or bank deposit transfer - can vary greatly.

The average revenue per i-mode user (ARPU) is about 10,000 yen, with 8,000 yen (= 66.9 USD) for voice services and 2,000 yen (= 16.7 USD) for data (i-mode).

Building an i-mode Site
After reading all the information about the specifications and services on i-mode, the big question is how can you actually build an i-mode site? For i-mode's markup language, NTT DoCoMo has adopted a subset of HTML, called Compact HTML, which has been submitted to the W3C (see http://www.w3.org/TR/1998/NOTE
compactHTML-19980209/
), and adapted it with some custom tags and an additional icon library containing 200 icons such as hearts, arrows, and hotel signs.

The resulting HTML-based markup language specification is very often referred to as "i-mode compatible HTML," instead of cHTML. It includes the following extensions:

  • A phone-to tag that allows a person to click on the phone number, then call the number
  • An access key tag for allowing a user to press a number on the handset's keypad and quickly jump to the provided link instead of scrolling down
  • Attributes to allow adding contact information to the phonebook via a hyperlink
  • Picture symbols to express more in less words (see Figure 5)
Because i-mode compatible HTML is based on HTML, current HTML designers can become accustomed to developing sites for i-mode in a short amount of time. As mobile phones currently have a limited amount of memory, the maximum size of an i-mode page is 5KB, including pictures. However, NTT DoCoMo recommends that each page should not exceed 2KB. Another restraint is that i-mode handsets lack support for client-side scripting such as JavaScript, and for cookies, which makes session tracking a bit more difficult. NTT DoCoMo provides a wealth of information about the supported tag set at www.nttdocomo.co.jp/english/p_s/i/tag/index.html.

As mobile devices mature, there's a general idea of emerging out of the badlands and converging upon a standard for markup languages. Phones will eventually follow the XHTML Basic standard, granted there might be additions by each carrier or handset. With this in mind, there's only one thing to remember: "XHTML is the future." How far in the future is another story.

It's important to understand that the decision to go with HTML was not made because of the technical characteristics of this particular markup language or because it had proved superior to other alternatives such as WML. According to NTT DoCoMo, HTML was selected simply because of its already widespread usage as a de facto standard.

For the same reasons as with the markup language, NTT DoCoMo made its decision for other i-mode-related technologies (such as supported images and audio formats) based on what would be the best solution for the content providers and what would lower the entry barriers as much as possible. Hence, i-mode devices support GIF and animated GIF images for presenting on a page. These images can be saved by the user to display as wallpaper on the phone. A site can provide ringtone melodies for a user to download via the i-melody format, a derivative of MIDI, which has the extension .MLD. As the technology improved in the phones, we have seen color GIFs supported and a greater number of chords supported in a melody.

On the server side, i-mode devices communicate via a proprietary protocol to DoCoMo's base stations. When a request to a Web site is made by a phone, the base station passes the request to one of DoCoMo's gateways, which then passes along the request to the Web server using the HTTP protocol. Therefore, hosting i-mode pages is not much different than hosting normal Web pages - all that's needed is a HTTP capable Web server and a connection to the Internet.

If a content provider wants to offer back-end services via CGIs or such, it's important to set the Content-Type and Content-Length in the HTTP response headers, in addition to following the i-mode compatible HTML rules.

SSL
For those who wish to offer services requiring the transmission of sensitive information, the newer 503i handsets provide Secure Socket Layer (SSL) capabilities. NTT DoCoMo embeds the Certificate Authorities (CA) VeriSign and Baltimore Technologies root keys into these handsets. Content providers must then provide an SSL-capable Web server and obtain a certificate for their server from one of the above CAs.

Tools
Having the proper tools to develop an i-mode site can greatly increase the productivity of developers. Because DoCoMo's i-mode is based on HTML standards, many of the applications a developer uses in making Web pages are applicable for i-mode sites as well.

An i-mode site, just like a Web site, can be created with the most bare bones of tools, a text editor, or by using Web design programs as long as the designer does not use any features outside of i-mode's supported tag set. The Adobe GoLive product even has an extension to incorporate the special tags found in i-mode compatible HTML: www.adobe.com/products/golive/actions/imode.html.

Properly emulating an i-mode handset is very important for testing an i-mode site. There are a few tools that provide decent replications of i-mode handset features. The poor man's solution is to simply reduce the size of a Web browser's display to roughly the size of a mobile phone screen.

More advanced tools are Pixo's microbrowser (www.pixo.com/) and Access Technologies' Compact NetFront (www.access.co.jp/english/index.html), which is the microbrowser used in most i-mode handsets. i-MIMIC, a nice Web-based tool that emulates a specific phone, the P209is, can be found at X-9's Web site (www.x-9.com/mimic/beta.asp).

Java
A mobile phone is no longer just a device to place calls, read e-mail, or browse the mobile Internet - it is now a portable computer too! Since January 2001, NTT DoCoMo provides 503i handsets capable of downloading and running a Java application called i-appli. These are nowhere near as powerful as a home computer, but they do provide many useful and entertaining services.

Games are popular applications, as are alarm clocks that wake you up with the latest weather information. Java enables developers to take control of how they lay out information and graphics. It allows them to increase the level of user interactivity beyond what a microbrowser can support, and to reduce the amount of network communication, saving the user money.

These Java applications can be saved on the phone and do not require connecting to the network to be runnable, even outside of the NTT DoCoMo service area. This is a big plus for people spending lots of time in subways or in the mountains.

NTT DoCoMo's i-mode Java technology is part of the Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition (J2ME), extending the Connected Limited Device Configuration (CLDC). After the CLDC, DoCoMo branched away from the pack and decided to use their own API sometimes called DoJa (DoCoMo's Java). Therefore, it is not compatible with the standard that Sun Microsystems and others use, called the Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP).

About Andrea Hoffmann
Andrea Hoffman is an international advisory board member of Wireless Business & Technology. She works as a consultant at the EGIS Group in Tokyo. She co-founded Mobile Media Japan and lead a i-mode workshop at the SRI Global Telecoms Japan, 2001.

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