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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.