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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

Vodafone Group Plc is planning to revamp its Vizzavi wireless internet service provider (WISP) service in an effort to head off competition from KPN NV's i-mode services which were launched in Germany two weeks ago.

According to reports, Vizzavi will be given a significant overhaul, with increased emphasis on visual services. Newbury, UK-based Vodafone is also expected to announce that early content providers for KPN's European i-mode services will provide services for Vizzavi. Yesterday, industry observers were betting that Vodafone will make its plans toward the end of next week, at about the same time that KPN is expected to launch i-mode in the Netherlands.

The prospect of i-mode taking off in Europe is an uncomfortable one for major carriers such as Vodafone that have made significant early investments in wireless internet services based on wireless application protocol. So far their WAP efforts have seen little reward, since the early version of the protocol have proved functionally inferior to NTT DoCoMo Inc's proprietary i-mode protocol, cHTML.

The WAP operators have also failed to emulate DoCoMo's open-handed business model that gives service and content providers the lion's share of i-mode revenue, and has created a vibrant market for services that has attracted 30 million users to i-mode in a little over four years.

It is not clear whether Vodafone's plans for Vizzavi will include opening its market to contributors a la i-mode - a move that would need the approval of Vodafone's French partner Vivendi. However, Vodafone may decide to accelerate the adoption of newer versions of WAP based on the XHTML format language, and subset of XML. If it does it will remain on target to eventually become compatible with i-mode services, DoCoMo having also committed to keep cHTML on a convergence course with XML.

More immediately, WAP operators have the opportunity to meet i-mode on its own terms, before KPN and DoCoMo can generate significant traction behind it.

Certainly, although KPN's German subsidiary E-Plus has so far been able to announce support from 60 content providers to its pioneer European i-mode service, it is unlikely that all of these providers will be ready to offer services in all countries covered by KPN operations.

This leaves the Dutch company with the problem of building an element of unique content for each national market. On top of this, KPN also faces the problem of convincing European mobile subscribers to abandon their loyalties to handset makers such as Nokia Corp and LM Ericsson Telefon AB. So far, Japanese manufacturers NEC Corp and Toshiba Corp are the only companies to have committed to supply i-mode phones in Europe.

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