i-Mode is occasionally hailed by simple folk as "Japan's much better version of WAP". To claim such a thing is erroneous, but it's an easily made mistake: i-Mode phones have higher-resolution, colour screens, and already support transmission-level packet-based operation (which won't arrive in Europe until GPRS is adopted, sometime this year*).

However, take a closer look at the system behind i-Mode. i-Mode is a service run by one telecoms company, NTT. (In fact, at one time there was one gateway server catering for millions of subscribers. Unsurprisingly, it occasionally went down, rendering the service inoperable for hours at a time.) NTT basically hold the reigns for any use of their (proprietary) network. Compare WAP/WML, which at least attempts to conform to a recognised, open standard, the controlling body of which has over 200 members. WAP (currently, I think, on version 2.0) has a technology roadmap planned out that all the handset builders and network operators are agreed on.

The fact that they even got a fairly robust, true TCP/IP service to work over the rather unsuitable GSM network is impressive, even if the rather modestly powered handsets and limited browser software (and, obviously, the high call charges) took the edge of its practical uses. You can set up a WAP site or application today without paying any big companies a fee, and people will be able to access it from their phones and PDAs.

Basically, i-Mode is a technology suited to the unique conditions of the Japanese market, where technological progress could be rapid in the short term at the expense of competition or a properly thought-out standard. It's a neat gimmick, but not one with strong (or any) prospects for export.

*and in the US by the time the Apes have taken over.

2859442: As I said above, i-Mode is a technology suited to the unique conditions of the Japanese market. In Europe mobile phone uptake is nearly 100% as well, but we do not use i-Mode (or WAP), at least in any great volume.

tokyogal: Thanks for clearing up some of my errors. i-Mode does use a proprietary protocol however. Also, even if you can build services accessible via NTT's network, you have to negotiate with them (as you point out) to make your services billable. Which has the same net result as the service being completely under their thumb. It may well be great from a consumer point of view, but it does constrict choice.