back to article Culture matters: Why i-mode failed

M-commerce service i-mode has been dropped by UK operator O2 and Australia's Telstra. So how did a service, which promised to bring mobile commerce to everyone, and which raked in more than 40 million customers, fail so badly outside its home market, Japan? i-mode seemed able to deliver the mobile revolution back when WAP was …


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  1. Chris Matchett

    Japan 'research'

    "Japanese houses consist of spaces which are multi-function depending on what the occupants are doing. Walls may be moved around during the day, and it's extremely unlikely that a child would have its own room."

    Based on what? Where are you getting this information from? Not based on visits to actual homes in Japan that's for sure.

  2. Anton Ivanov

    Your review is wrong off the mark on an as many counts as I can think of

    As an unfortunate owner of an i-mode enabled phone from O2 (now upgraded) I can tell you that your review is wrong quite a few counts:

    1. Any service requires working handsets. The first released handsets by O2 were buggy as hell and O2 could not be bothered to provide any firmware updates whatsoever. For example the Samsung s500 i-mode enabled P.O.S. reboots at any time for no reason if you charge the battery fully (integer overrun somewhere in calculating charge values). The other imode enabled handsets were not much different. One should not expect customers to like a service if they do not have a working handset to use it.

    2. There were loads of hype and no practical services available at launch. The service launched with very few 3rd party services. I remember only streetmap which was useless as there phone did not know its location to integrate it properly (at least when I tried it). imode success in japan is due to the availability of mcommerse on imode. O2 made a lot of advertising noise to that respect with little substance. If it wanted the service to succeed it should have actually worked to provide gateways to services like the major UK banks, travel services like lastminute or expedia, airline and airport information, rapid train ticket purchasing, etc. That may have delivered. O2 did not bother. As a result the service did not deliver.

    Overall, imode was a repetition of WAP. It suffered from the same "Field of Dreams" syndrome - "Build it and they will come". Nope, if there are no services and it does not work it is actually "Build it and they will yawn".

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What i-mode?

    Perhaps the problem was in buying the exclusive license. I'm an Australian who was under the impression that i-mode was never made available in Australia.

    I remember hearing about I-mode when it was being rolled out in Japan around 2001, and waiting for it to arrive in Australia. Its complete absence led me to believe that maybe it was just not feasible in Australia - Wide areas, low population density (in places).

    Perhaps some competition might have led to some, well, advertising?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why I-mode failed for me

    I-mode failed for me because I couldnt pick up my email on it. It almost completely failed to work with both Google and Yahoo!

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Are you sure?

    "This makes Japanese youths the perfect mobile consumers - they have no TV or computer in their bedroom because they have no bedroom of their own."

    Excuse me if I doubt you, but I went to Japan 10 years ago and everyone I stayed with had a bedroom of their own, including their kids. They were small rooms, yes, but definitely self-contained, and the kids often had a computer or TV in their bedroom.

    If you're going to generalise like this, could you show us some facts and figures to prove that your generalisation is (generally) correct?

  6. Graham

    No bedrooms? Are you serious?

    >"Japanese houses consist of spaces which are multi-functional depending on what the occupants are doing. Walls may be moved around during the day, and it's extremely unlikely that a child would have its own room."

    >"This makes Japanese youths the perfect mobile consumers - they have no TV or computer in their bedroom because they have no bedroom of their own."

    Maybe in houses built 80 years ago. The overwhelming majority of Japanese live in houses with solid walls and doors for bedrooms, and with maybe 1-2 slideable doors in the main living/dining area. A quick poll of the kids at my son's kindy here in Japan suggests around 9 out of 10 kids have their own rooms.

    Its pretty obvious that the author has little actual clue about Japan. Factual-type announcements like these above should be backed up by at least a little bit of research...

  7. Ian Ferguson

    Interesting, I haven't been told

    I'm an O2 i-mode customer and have used it this morning as usual. Is it yet to be dropped?

    I've never more than dabbled in the m-commerce aspect - the subscription content model is a good idea, eg. 20p a month to access a mapping site - but it's just too damn slow to be practical (for the aforementioned mapping site, whenever I've tried to use it to find out where I've got lost, it's taken at least ten minutes to load up the relevant maps before I've given up and asked a local)

    As well as being too slow, the main problem is the usual mobile tie-in content thing - O2 are too keen on pushing partner services (mapping, dating, m-pr0n) without acknowledging that customers may wish to use alternative (maybe free) services.

    The thing that really appealed to me is the handset I got - the NEC 343i - because it's so simple. It's a little bug-ridden but is straightforward, nice clear screen, big buttons, no unwanted video/mp3/flippy/slidey bollocks. Hopefully some network will twig soon that what customers like me want is simplicity and reliability, not the latest features.

    And pigs might fly...

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    There is the little matter of i-mode being released on O2 about five or six years after it first debuted for NTT in Japan.

    Basically, it wasn't i-mode that failed, it was the incompetence and greed of the big mobile networks like Vodaphone and co to create i-mode like systems instead of just going for WAP back in 1999!

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The following two sentences are not true/misreading in the general sense

    ... Japanese houses consist of spaces which are multi-functional depending on what the occupants are doing. Walls may be moved around during the day, and it's extremely unlikely that a child would have its own room...

    At least in my town, most kids had own room when we were 7 (I also had a Japan-small telly in my room). I wouldn't say the entire argument is weak because of that though.

  10. Paul Irving

    Misunderstandings about Japan

    I've visited Japan several times, & been inside a lot of Japanese homes, having a Japanese partner. Not one of her family or friends has a house or flat with movable walls, even the country cousins with an almost unmodernised traditional house (a lovely building,BTW), & I can't see the level of earthquake proofing demanded by current building standards permitting it. In any case, most rooms are too small to be subdivided by movable partitions.

    Among the families I know, every teenager has his or her own room, with a television & computer in it.

    My partners family are probably better off than average, & have correspondingly more living space, but even taking that into account, I'm sure the author of the article has a mistaken view of how most Japanese live. I've been in exactly one Japanese dwelling (the aforementioned traditional house) which didn't have at least as many western (chairs, tables, beds etc) as traditionally furnished rooms.

  11. Paul Irving

    Bedroom TVs in Japan

    I forgot to say: small LCD-screen TVs for small bedrooms seem to be very popular in Japan. My partners somewhat technophobic mother has one, for example. There are swivel mounts for headboards, so they don't take up space on bedside cabinets.

  12. Hugh_Pym

    If they asked the users...

    ... whether they would prefer better programs on conventional non-HD TV or the same shit in 20 different formats. They might get why all this technology is so hard to sell.

  13. jamie

    Another echo from Japan

    I live in Japan right now, and I can tell you that most kids have their own rooms. (Small though they may be). The reason i-Mode took off here is:

    1- National pride (they still have that, like how the French all drive Peugots. We used to do that in the UK way back when)

    2 - It avoids actual contact with humans.

    now if you don't mind I'm off back to

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Replace re-configurable rooms with long rail commute while standing and we see a socialogical phenomenon, which continues to drive the Japan market.

    Language is surely another factor. Content in general was lacking in Japanese. Docomo with i-Mode brought a business proposition for small and large providers to build a content network before any one else came near.

    Then there was per packet pricing. Not sure how this was done later in Europe, but I understand the model was innovative at the time.

    Let's not forget Docomo's market dominance, with NTT as mostly government-owned vendor (stops to re-load spit). This would have provided Docomo significant leeway in calling timing and standards for network investment.

  15. Dr Andrew A. Adams

    Imode in Japan

    I would echo the comment above about useful services in Japan - I've been living in greater Tokyo for the last six months and most Japanese use imode for things that you can't get in the UK, like good travel information on Tokyo's extensive train network (type in two station names and it gives you the route and the times).

    The other big difference between imode in Japan and in the West is the information density of kanji-based characters - two to three times the information for the same screen estate - this makes imode much more usable on modest mobile phone screens.

    Thirdly, the number of people in Tokyo's major cities is huge (greater Tokyo is quote at 30 million) and they all use public transport and commute long distances. While not all of them are using mobiles on the train, a substantial proportion are doing so in a variety of ways including imode web surfing and mobile emailing.

    I also echo the comment about the complete cluelessness about Japanese homes - the writer of this piece obviously gets his idea of Japanese homes from My Neighbour Totoro or similar. Almost no one has houses like that over here.

    He does make one valid point buried in there somewhere. A substantial number of Japanese people (not just teenagers) do not own home computers. They've not achieved the market penetration they had in the West for too many reasons to go into here. imode in Japan came out as a true competitor sa home internet access (time wise that is - when it came out over here most people if they had internet access at home were still on dial-up and broadband where available was more expensive especially when you were paying for a mobile anyway). The geography of Japan also lends itself to mobile phone infrastructure - very high population density in most areas and very low in inaccessible regions. Population-wise mobile coverage is very good from docomo, surface area wise it looks terrible because so much of Japan is uninhabitable mountains where you don't bother with coverage.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the authors defence

    ... I spent some time on a school exchange in Tokyo in 1987, and myself and the two teenage boys in the family slept on tatami in the living room as they didn't have a room. How normal this was I don't know, but Bill's not completely off the mark.

  17. SB

    Appalling journalism

    The popularity of the Internet and vast income it generates leads to a proliferation of poor articles written by opinionated and u-educated philistines, whom perform little or no research, and produce output that is comparable in quality to sensationalist tabloid journalism.

    I think theregister is crap and dull - stick to regurgitating press releases and writing reviews. If I want to read cultural comment I'll go elsewhere.

  18. Mo

    O2's i-mode

    i-mode failed in the UK because O2's implementation of it was abysmal. I bought a phone at launch, and gave up after a couple of months when there weren't any worthwhile services to speak of, the handsets were horribly buggy with no firmware (or PC connectivity—despite the mini-USB ports!) on the horizon, and the whole thing locked you into a walled garden of extremely limited appeal.

    It was so bad, as I recall, that O2 had to extend the whole “free trial” period by three months to persuade people to stick around.

    It's unfortunate, because the platform was fairly good: automated billing for services for prepaid subscribers worked well, for example. There were certainly some hiccups in the beginning that I saw, but on the whole the server side was fairly well put together, in technical terms. It's just a shame that pretty much nothing took advantage of it in any meaningful way.

  19. Tom Hawkins

    Good travel information

    ...on Britain's expensive, sorry *extensive* train network:

    is there anything the Japanese one does that this doesn't?

  20. Ormo

    Re japanese Research

    " "Japanese houses consist of spaces which are multi-function depending on what the occupants are doing. Walls may be moved around during the day, and it's extremely unlikely that a child would have its own room."

    Based on what? Where are you getting this information from? Not based on visits to actual homes in Japan that's for sure."

    I think it's based on Tom Cruise's room in The Last Samurai...

  21. shane fitzgerald

    O2 Feng Shui tarrif

    I think people are missing the point here. The authors main point is O2 should encourage people to smash all their internal walls, burn their 50" plasma and all sit around in the middle of their one massive empty living room squinting at a 1" mobile telly.

  22. Chris

    Missing the obvious?

    The reasons you give for the failure of i-mode in the west (and its success in the east) seem to miss the obvious - timing. I went to Japan when i-mode was becoming popular and yes, it eclipsed what WAP could do, it's no wonder it got wide take up. Nothing to do with movable walls, or the lack of computers in the bedrooms of Japanese kids. I came back from that holiday wishing I could get hold of it here instead of making do with WAP.

    However by the time it became widely available in the UK, true mobile internet was already available. Granted, not in as pretty a package as it is with the advent of handsets like the new Nokias, but certainly if you were the type of person that needed mobile internet it was already around. If you didn't, you wouldn't have bit on i-mode anyway. Uptake of that kind of service in the East is a bit like the uptake of the web in France, where Minitel, though technically inferior, already supplied a lot of the services that people were marketing the web with over here.

    The geeks will always be better informed of new toys when they become available, and will jump accordingly, but for the mass-market, it's more of a need-based reaction. If a technology is already percieved as meeting that need, people take longer to swap to a "better" technology... and in the case of i-mode they certainly don't take backward steps.

  23. Jon

    Oh, come on...

    OK, the thing about most kids in Japan having no room of their own is true, but there's no connection to i-mode - that's a thoroughly specious argument that has nothing to do with what is essentially a marketing failure. It's pathetic that ill-informed comment like this gets the coverage it does.

  24. Chris

    iMode & Messaging

    I have the beautiful vintage 1999 DoCoMo P209i iMode handset in front of me as I type this to remind me of how good iMode was nearly a decade ago. Looking at the terminal reminds me that one thing that always seems to get omitted in iMode debates in the West - the 209 has mail button but not an iMode button.

    The PDC network (the packet network that pre-dated FOMA) had nothing like SMS. It did have in its favour very low start-up times and very low latencies. The brilliance of iMode was to introduce messaging and browsing together.

    NTT DoCoMo control handset terminal software specifications and mandated a common, workable standard for a simple markup language (cHTML), a browser and a mail client coupled with a great business model where content providers were paid through a revenue share model - the best possible inducement to create great content.

    So, in 2000 you have small screen terminals with this fab new email feature that can access a fast packet data network and real web browsing. And the punters loved it.

    Any debate about iMode in the West should consider the crucial draw to iMode that texting provided. The West had messaging via SMS - in adopting iMode adopted the content model only – the major draw to iMode was Messaging and this already existed in the West.

    I swear by the way that my Nokia N70 on a 3G network is still slower in connecting to the network than my Sony 504i was 6 years ago.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What the Japanese network does that the UK rail network does not (Oh, and why i-mode failed)

    1) work

    2) work fast

    3) provides excellent info, even in a foreign language, and with multi-modal connections. The interface is far from perfect, but it gives you train composition, complete timetables for each service, etc. and follow the blue button on the top-right for English

    National Snail Enquiries is a joke in comparison, as is the rail service it holds data for (although the recent release has some more useful features), and none of it is in Japanese.



    I had the joy of business development in mobile games in 1999-2001. The big money was thought to be in i-mode, because the revenue share model was very generous. I think (hazy memory) NTT took c. 15% and left the rest with the content provider, and it provided a billing system, which was beyond all the European telco's.

    This was because it was sensible enough to realise that it was a dumb pipe between service consumers and providers. The 'phone company does not try to script your conversations so why should they control your service access? They are a pipe.

    Compare this with other companies that demand >50% revenue splits or, in the case of arrogant BT, demanded a £10k's carriage fee! I signed the first mobile games deal in the USA, with AT&T, in 3 months of negotiating: in my 3 years with the company before I left, we had still not done a deal with BT despite the talks predating my working there. This was the general pattern, in all fifty carriage deals we built: North American companies were usually more generous and quicker to decide (and, in the case of Sprint, provided a shit-hot data network to deliver services on); European companies were too busy preening themselves over GSM to think about the customer experience or the need for a content ecosystem.

    Funnily enough, it turned out all the money was in SMS, lame daily joke servers, gambling and "one-handed applications", not cool envelope-pushing Java or WAP games.

  26. Wazza

    iMode fails as AOL did

    Give us unlimiuted data access and let us access what we like whether email or the web. That's what users want and what eventually, after operators have spent billions on over-complex billing systems etc., we will get.

  27. Tom Hawkins

    National Rail Enquiries WAP service...

    ...could certainly be improved on, but it's disingenuous to say it doesn't work. I use it frequently for both timetable lookups and real-time arrivals/departures and it does the job fine. The Japanese one linked to above is certainly slicker than the National Rail website, but we're discussing mobile interfaces here - is there such a thing as an i-mode emulator site so we can see how it looks on a phone?

  28. Steve Carrod

    Giving up too soon?

    I couldn't help but read this article and wonder whether the decision to axe i-mode was one of those top-level boardroom decisions based on the fact that it hadn't delivered the forecast ROI within the pre-defined period.

    The reasons for dropping the technology also seemed to be an after thought rather than from a tangible form of research. Surely the basics of cultural differences were considered before adopting the technology in the first place?

    I fear that this was taken away a little too early and not enough was done to effectively create the building blocks to make this what it really should be now and in the near future. Mobile adoption is still on the increase in the UK and rest of Europe and reductions in proficient technology may not bode well for the future speed of this adoption. As a keen mobile web user and advocate of mobile web content/commerce… shame on you O2!

  29. Eran Wyler, InfoGin

    Reinventing the web "again"?

    O2's recent decision to drop its i-mode services in the UK, followed by the Australian operator Telstra's decision to drop the i-mode in Australia is no surprise.

    I'm perplexed by the mobile industry's move toward services such as i-mode after being disappointed by WAP. The real issue has always remained unresolved - the problem is not with i-mode or with WAP, but rather content and end-user experience.

    Previously, mobile operators have made it almost impossible to access off-portal content. However, in today's highly competitive environment, more and more operators are realising the potential of revenues from such advanced mobile data services, and are eager to offer the ultimate mobile Internet surfing experiences.

    Why does the Web need to be reinvented for the mobile when Internet users are happy with the web as it is? Just like dot Mobi, i-mode content is limited to both specific content as well as devices. O2 believes it is the limited range of handsets which has constrained the growth of i-mode. However, it is also insufficient Internet content, as well as 'thinner' mobile versions of Web sites, that have led to such a low take-up of i-mode content. Today's mobile users expect nothing less than access to Web sites they're familiar with on any mobile device they desire, whether it be a WAP 1.0 phone or a higher-end device such as Apple's iPhone.

    If operators are to offer such services, they must quickly adopt solutions which automatically adapt a regular website to a mobile device’s physical and functional capabilities. This solution must provide the best content presentation and ease of use for even the smallest device. The time has come for mobile users to continue enjoying surfing the Internet while being on the move.

  30. jonathan frate

    you're missing hte most obvious point

    the reason i-mode worked in japan is because... it had no competition.

    in the UK i-mode competes with WAP, SMS, JAVA...

    in Japan, when it was released, mobile email routed through imode. mobile email was sms...

    you're comparing apples to oranges.

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