DoCoMo drops i-mode phones, reminds us that i-mode still actually exists

Source: Wikimedia Commons

ITEM [via The Japan News]: NTT DoCoMo announced last week that it will cease production of five out of six mobile phones for its i-mode service. The sixth one – which is designed for elderly users – will still exist, but the other five will be discontinued once current stocks run out.

My first thought upon reading this was: “Wow, i-mode actually still exists?”

For those of you who can’t remember that far back (or who are young enough to assume that any handset that doesn’t look like an iPhone is incapable of accessing the internet), DoCoMo launched the “i-mode” mobile data service in 1999, when 3G was still a standard being hammered out at the ITU. At the time, the mobile industry was bullish on the prospects of mobile data, but the main mobile data technology in play in 1999 was WAP (wireless application protocol), which many mobile users agreed was terrible, if not massively overhyped.

DoCoMo went its own way with i-mode, which became massively successful in Japan – partly because DoCoMo had tight control of the ecosystem by commissioning its own handsets to support the service, but mainly because i-mode used compact HTML (cHTML), which meant that – very much unlike WAP’s Wireless Markup Language – it acted a lot like the worldwide web.

It looked something like this.

Source: NTT DoCoMo
Source: NTT DoCoMo

It wasn’t the actual web, of course, but it was a familiar experience for internet users and an easy learning curve for site developers experienced with HTML. And while DoCoMo deployed i-mode as a walled garden business model, it allowed customers to access any web page optimized for cHTML.

The domestic success of i-mode turned a lot of industry heads in the early 00s, not least because WAP simply wasn’t delivering the experience that users expected (those expectations having already been shaped by the web). DoCoMo tried to capitalize on that interest by licensing i-mode to other operators – but despite the buzz, i-mode only saw launches in 17 markets outside of Japan, and sign-ups were nowhere close to what cellcos had hoped. The small number of handsets supporting i-mode didn’t help. By 2007, overseas cellcos that gave i-mode a try were giving up on it. And of course in July that year the iPhone happened, taking the concept of mobile internet to into new territory and suddenly giving cellcos the 3G business model they’d been looking for all this time.

Hindsight is never fair, of course, but it’s interesting to look back at the state of what passed for the mobile internet in 1999 and how far ahead of the curve i-mode actually was. (Emojis? i-mode invented that, you know.) If nothing else, i-mode proved that there really was a market for handsets that functioned as tools for internet access.

And it’s interesting that while i-mode has been eclipsed by the smartphone apps ecosystem, it hasn’t been replaced by it. According to The Japan News, DoCoMo’s i-mode user base – which peaked at close to 49 million users in 2009 – totaled 17.4 million as of September this year, which is an impressive number (close to 30% of DoCoMo’s customer base, the report says) given the prevalence of smartphones, apps and easily accessible mobile internet content.

It will be interesting to see how much longer i-mode will last with just the one handset on offer. (DoCoMo is reportedly discontinuing the others in part because suppliers no longer make some of the components for them.) Certainly DoCoMo has a plan to eventually phase out i-mode or morph it into their modern mobile content offerings. But there will always be a market for mobile handsets that deliver basic services well.

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