M-mode Misses the Mark
By Carlo Longino, Fri Jul 04 00:00:00 GMT 2003

AT&T Wireless' first crack at i-mode style services falls to some predictable bogeymen.

AT&T Wireless made big news when Japanese giant NTT DoCoMo announced in December 2000 it would buy a 16% stake in the US carrier. While DoCoMo's global expansion was big news, even bigger was that the company would share some of the secrets of its i-mode service with its new American brother.

Industry watchers hoped this might herald a new generation in US mobile content and services, where previous efforts have been sporadically successful at best. The recently launched m-mode service is AT&T's first shot at content since the DoCoMo deal and supposed subsequent intellectual capital investment. It's little more than a WAP portal over a GPRS connection; its offerings won't really excite anyone familiar with standard WAP portals outside the US. It does, however, break some ground in America with some of its features, but is ultimately undone by some typical mobile content obstacles: usability and utility.

Not Content with theContent

m-mode's content features the usual suspects: news headlines, sports scores, stock quotes, weather updates, and so on. It also has a few new twists: the ability to check any POP e-mail account (but no push functionality), a calendar and to-do list that can be synchronized with Outlook or Lotus Notes, a number of games, and a few chat functions including AOL Instant Messenger.

AT&T seems to be going after two markets here: business users and young users. They've geared many of the communication and entertainment functions to young people, while the informational and organizational functions to business types. But will they hit either one?

Young people aren't likely to be drawn in easily thanks to sticker shock (the 2 currently available m-mode phones, the Ericsson T68 and Nokia 8390, are both around $150, compared to the free phones available from other providers; the m-mode "Max" plan costs an additional $12.49 a month for 2 megs of data) and their technological savvy (after the novelty wears off, they'll realize they're paying over the odds for the text messaging and chat features they use most often and can find cheaper from other carriers).

Similarly, although m-mode's organizer functions are one of its bright spots, will it really knock off Palm or Pocket PC devices from the top of the PDA heap? Not likely. Though the organizer is good enough for somebody who really doesn't use a PDA to its full power - in the case of the T68, a user can store up to 500 contacts with multiple numbers and e-mail addresses - it features the added clunkiness of being an m-mode service only. Users sync up their PIM data to a personalized Web page, then can access the data from their device; the data on their computer never makes it into the phone's memory or its internal PIM functions. These pitfalls plague the service - more on that later.

m-mode content's main problem is that it's not sticky. Although an overused buzzword from the Internet boom, it fits here. Very few of the services, including those that have a premium charge over and above the m-mode monthly fee, will bring users back repeatedly. One major difference that m-mode's designers haven't picked up on between Japan and the US is the giant need in the Land of the Rising Sun to kill time - those hours spent on the train or in the subway, merely just getting around huge places Tokyo. In a place like the US where few people take public transport (and many of those that do are tucked neatly underground, away from any base station), the incentive to access mobile content is low. Pretty much anything can wait until a user is back in the office or at home, in front of a 17-inch monitor with a cable modem.

For those instance where someone is waiting around, say waiting for a meeting or in a doctor's waiting room, they might toy with some of the included content, but there isn't much to the service that will change people's behavior and keep bringing them back to m-mode. One pretty cool service is the ability to view local weather radar images. But it comes with an additional monthly fee. Chances are if I'm somewhere I'd be interested in the current weather, I can either find a TV with the Weather Channel, or just look outside to see if it's raining. I might use the service a few times just because it's neat, but would I pay $3 or $5 a month (on top of my current $50 or $70 monthly bill) for it? Doubtful.

And another problem is that many of the useful content services are available to AT&T subscribers for free (costing only airtime) from the carriers' #121 service. Users simply dial #121 from their mobile and use a voice-driven system to get things like stock quotes, sports scores, movie times, driving directions, and even shopping. If I can use this to get most of the information contained in m-mode, what's my incentive to use the data service? Frankly very little.

Usability: A KeyConcern

No doubt AT&T (and other carriers) will figure out the content; the communication and organization functions of the service are already a good start, and might be worth the cheapest ($2.99 per month) plan. But more worrying is the usability of the m-mode service.

Any fledgling technology is beset with system and device crashes; m-mode is no different, and these occurrences are to be expected and are largely ignored. But the text-menu-driven navigation of the service leaves a lot to be desired, especially considering the point above about cultural differences.

If I'm in the car - a regular, everyday, too-often fact of American life - and get lost, have no fear, I can turn to my AT&T mobile. But will I thumb through a series of text menus, punching in my location and where I want to go? Almost certainly not when I can dial #121 on my hands-free and speak the same information, and have the directions read out to me. I can even save the trip if I need to refer to it again later. The user is offered very little incentive to use the m-mode service, not only when it's duplicated by an existing and cheaper option, but also when that cheaper option is even easier to use.

The same is true when looking at the organizer functions. The seemingly best solution would be to use the m-mode service merely as a synchronization conduit, taking my PIM info that I've placed on my personalized Web page and planting it in my phone's organizer functions. That way it's not dependent on being in an area with a GPRS connection or susceptible to network problems (of course, this still skirts the issue of being able to access calendar or other important data while you're talking on the phone).

At the end of the day, there's not a lot on m-mode to get excited about. While its communication functions may prove useful and its organizer functions somewhat so, it's not a great leap forward in terms of content. You'd think that AT&T would have learned more from the failures of so many European WAP portals, but in terms of US mobile content, it's a slow step in the right direction.

Carlo Longino is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Hoover's Online.