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Three means a trend

By Scott Bradner

Last month Japan became at least the third country after Israel and Finland where there are more people subscribing to mobile phones than fixed line phones. In a harbinger of things to come the Wall Street Journal reports that a factor in the recent increase in the popularity of mobile phones is a service that enables users to surf the web from their cell phones yet is not the highly touted WAP technology.

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Co. (NTT) already has 5.7 million subscribers to its year old "I-mode" service and is on track to double that number by the end of the year. This is more than 10% of the 56.8 million subscribers to mobile-phone services and is quite impressive when compared to the 55.4 million subscribers using analog phone lines.

We had a talk about I-mode at the just completed IETF meeting. It was one of three plenary talks on different approaches to Internet support on mobile devices. The other two talks were about the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and a pure Internet connectivity model for mobile devices. The I-mode talk was informative and cute. The speaker demonstrated an I-mode Karaoke application. The words to a song are displayed on the cell phone screen and the music (if that is what one calls the series of sounds that can be played on such a small speaker) emanates from the cell phone, so the user can sing along. Glad they don't allow cell phone use in airplanes.

I-mode is NTT's own proprietary approach to bringing Internet to mobile devices. The major standards-based effort is by the Wireless Application Protocol Forum ( which is defining the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP.) Both of these approaches seem to one degree or another to not be willing to accept the Internet that they are trying to connect to. WAP in particular assumes that there are servers in the network, generally provided by the service provider, that mediate communications between the user and the Internet and that the protocols between these servers and the phones are not standard Internet protocols. A rational for this design is that the bandwidth and screen size limitations of mobile devices mean that directly connecting to, for example, CNN's web page would not get anything useful. But a byproduct is that a service provider may be able to control what servers their customers can connect though and reduce the user's flexibility to pick services and applications.

Even with these limitations cell phones with Internet connectivity look like they will become a major way that users get to use the Internet. I-mode has already made NTT the biggest Internet service provider in Japan. This trend may have a major impact on the all too many web sites that seem to think that their users have gigabit connections to high-resolution displays. That would be a blessing.

disclaimer: Smart people can still design dumb web sites. That may or may not apply at Harvard but the opinions are mine.