DoCoMo Will [Not] Drop i-mode in Japan
By Eric Lin, Thu Jul 22 23:00:00 GMT 2004

Updated: A story saying DoCoMo has plotted a course to eliminate the brand that made it famous in Japan looks to be wrong.


Update: It appears somebody mistranslated the original source article from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. DoCoMo is trying to migrate its 2G users onto the 3G network, but doesn't plan to ditch the i-mode system.

NTT DoCoMo will officially drop the i-mode name, related marketing, and eventually the service in Japan. It will eliminate the network once most users have upgraded to the 3G FOMA network and the remaining traditionalists are moved to a basic voice-centric 2G service. The decision to shun the i-mode brand is a shock, but the decision to eliminate the network is not. FOMA subscribers are growing at a rapid pace now, recently hitting five million, however the majority of them are converted i-mode users, not new heads.

Eliminating i-mode also frees up DoCoMo to concentrate on 3G and future technologies, as well as providing some spectrum for experimentation. Until it released a recent spate of new handsets along with more competitive pricing, FOMA was lagging behind KDDI's 2.5G AU service, and DoCoMo was lagging behind in innovation. KDDI's service was less expensive and the handsets were more desirable, and the speed difference between 1xRTT and W-CDMA was negligible, especially when compared to i-mode. KDDI's pricing for AU is still proving to be a popular reason for its growing subscriber numbers, however DoCoMo's most recent volley has put it back in the top spot for new subs.

While i-mode has jumped the shark in Japan, it is only starting to catch on elsewhere, finally hitting 3 million users. Although take up was slow on KPN networks, Bouygues Telecom proved to be an i-mode powerhouse, proving popular in France and serving as a model for other European licensees. Following DoCoMo's formula step by step (including launching with less than thrilling handsets), Bouygues has mustered up 670,000 i-mode users -- nearly a quarter of all foreign subs. With this momentum, i-mode has launched in nearly all of Western Europe, except for the UK. To fill in that hole, mmO2 has announced it is reviewing i-mode, but has not made an official decision to launch yet.

While the global wireless industry may be particularly attached to the i-mode brand, that's not enough reason for DoCoMo to keep it around in Japan. There the brand is attached to a network -- not just a service -- and that network is growing obsolete. The use of the i-mode brand to differentiate the mobile internet experience from the desktop one is no longer needed either; the small applets and services Colly Myers predicts as the future for mobile software are already the de facto standard in Japan. In Europe, the i-mode brand is a service, and a harbinger of the post-PC era. DoCoMo and the licensees have a number of reasons to keep the brand alive outside of Japan, not the least of which is DoCoMo wants some global brand recognition. By the time DoCoMo puts the i-mode brand to bed in Japan (it's hoping that happens in 2006), the West may finally get the post-PC internet as well, but carriers that have licensed it will probably still keep using the name -- DoCoMo may not give them a choice.