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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

AT&T Wireless Services Inc will launch a wireless data service based on NTT DoCoMo Inc's wildly popular i-mode in April, company spokespeople told ComputerWire yesterday,

Kevin Murphy writes

. To be branded m-mode, the service will be somewhat different to its Japanese counterpart, tailored to US market demands and the available technology.

"We plan to launch a consumer offering next month," AT&T Wireless spokesperson Ritch Blasi said. "It's not i-mode, it's based on i-mode - the technology and the methods DoCoMo uses in terms of marketing."

The launch will mark the end of over a year of speculation as to when AT&T Wireless would bring i-mode to market. Some kind of American flavor of i-mode has been on the cards since December 2000, when NTT DoCoMo invested $9.8bn in AT&T Wireless for a 16% stake in the company.

M-mode will also preempt the convergence of WAP and i-mode technologies. The service will initially be WAP-based, said Blasi, who added that "by summer we should have a dual browser" that would also allow applications to be built using i-mode's cHTML markup language.

Handsets from Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens will support the service, with about two dozen ultimately expected. The service will run on AT&T Wireless's GPRS 2.5G cellular network.

ATT is also bringing in some of NTT DoCoMo's network-side technology, the "underlying platform", though the company could not provide specifics. The US firm will not pay NTT DoCoMo license fees, unlike other NTT DoCoMo partners in Europe, including KPN Mobile in the Netherlands and Germany, both of which launched recently.

"Part of the agreement when they bought the 16% [ATT Wireless equity stake] was that we don't have to pay license fees," said Blasi, discounting reports that the lack of license payments was a sore point between the two firms.

Pricing for users has not been revealed yet, but Blasi confirmed that AT&T will charge by the kilobyte in much the same fashion as it does with current GPRS data services and as NTT DoCoMo does with i-mode in Japan.

Applications will include messaging (SMS, instant messaging and email), information services and entertainment. Certain features popular in Japan, such as cartoons, "just wouldn't sell here in the States", and have been eschewed, Blasi said.

Details of arrangements with third-party content providers were not available, but Blasi said there will be several content providers on the service at launch. America Online Inc seems a likely candidate, given it currently provides AOL Instant Messenger to AT&T Wireless customers.

I-mode has managed to swell to 30 million users in Japan in just three years, and NTT DoCoMo has a strategy of expanding internationally through partnerships, usually involving cash investments, with local wireless carriers.

Many have questioned whether the service can prove as popular in overseas markets, given national cultural differences, and refining the service to appeal to US consumers seems to be part of the reason AT&T Wireless has taken its time launching m-mode.

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