CEBIT : Limited phone variety stymies I-mode in Europe

If Europeans have been slow to sign up for the I-mode service exported to the continent by Japan’s NTT DoCoMo Inc., then it’s not for lack of content or because the technology is tricky to use. The main reason is the limited number of handset suppliers. That’s the view of Kei-ichi Enoki, who helped pioneer the mobile Internet service.

“Content is not an issue, nor is technology,” said Enoki, managing director of DoCoMo’s I-mode domestic and international business unit, speaking through an interpreter Thursday in an interview at the CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany. “The lack of handset variety is the major reason why there aren’t as many I-mode subscribers in Europe as we would like to see.”

Currently, I-mode has between 400,000 and 500,000 I-mode subscribers in Europe after nearly a year of commercial service, Enoki said.

By comparison, the rival Live! mobile Internet service launched by Vodafone Group PLC last year attracted over 400,000 customers in just over three months.

“I felt really sorry for E-Plus (Mobilfunk GmbH & Co. KG in Germany, the first operator in Europe to offer commercial I-mode service last year),” Enoki said. “The company had only one handset to sell to customers when it started,” he said.

That’s about to change.

Several mobile phone makers have announced plans to join NEC Corp. and Toshiba Corp. in delivering I-mode-capable phones for the European market, according to Enoki. “They’re going to help increase the number of I-mode subscribers substantially,” he said.

The new suppliers are Mitsubishi Electric Corp., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (better known for its Panasonic brand) and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. While Mitsubishi plans to introduce a phone in March, Samsung is targeting the first quarter of 2004 for the launch of its new phone with an integrated digital camera and Java technology, according to Enoki. NEC, too, plans to launch a new Java-enabled phone by the middle of this year, he said.

More could be on the way. DoCoMo is in talks with “multiple” vendors, Enoki said, but declined to comment on who they were and when announcements were likely.

Some analysts say I-mode gave away its several-month lead to Live!, a new messaging service that allows users to take and send pictures with integrated camera phones, among other things.

Enoki doesn’t believe that camera phones have pushed I-mode to the sidelines. “These phones are being really hyped up in Europe but it remains to be seen how much traffic they’ll generate for mobile operators,” Enoki said. “When we introduced camera phones in Japan, we noticed that people used them quite a bit at the beginning but not so much any more. What many of them do now is take pictures with their camera phones, and then store and show them to friends on their handsets later.”

As for content, European operators have attracted numerous content providers, he said. There could be more companies listed on the service’s main menu, which allows operators to generate revenue through billing services, Enoki said, but plenty of Web sites are providing content for I-mode users to access with their phones.

“We started with 67 registered content providers in Japan, Enoki said. “We now have more than 3,500.”

Content quality, however, is another issue. Industry critics claim I-mode lacks “compelling” content, or something people are willing to pay for. And they’re not alone. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Keiji Tachikawa, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of DoCoMo, blamed I-mode’s slow start in Europe on a lack of high-quality content.

Content aside, Telef