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Europe looks East for fortune

I-Mode handsets to be tailor-made for Europe

Japan's i-Mode, the fabulously successful son of compact HTML and packet-switched mobile phones, is coming to Britain.

Dutch telco KPN Mobile has ordered special handsets to support its European rollout of i-Mode technology, slated for later this year or early next year, KPN said last week.

The handsets will allow access to data services based on NTT Docomo's proprietary i-Mode protocol, delivered over European GSM (global system for mobile communications) and GPRS (general packet radio service) mobile networks. Until now, i-Mode services have only been accessible using PDC (personal digital communications) mobile phone networks in Japan.

The order marks a shift in the European mobile phone sphere to what is called the Japanese model. Operators take control over what handsets are developed and sold, instead of selling whatever device a handset maker comes out with. KPN has gone to a manufacturer with specific wishes for a line of mobile handsets, a model common for Japanese operators including NTT Docomo.

"We need to end the dependence on [handset] manufacturers. By being on top of the manufacturer we know exactly what will be delivered and when it will be delivered. We have placed an order for [European] i-Mode phones and are already testing units," said Mark de Jong, a KPN executive and a member of the board of KPN Mobile, in an interview. He declined to name the manufacturer or specify the number of handsets ordered.

By specially ordering phones KPN is not only assuring itself of handset availability, but is also ensuring that the handsets will work with the European version of i-Mode. Handset availability has proven to be a problem in the past with the launch of new services such as WAP (wireless application protocol) and GPRS.

But tailor-made phones could prove to be more expensive for the end user, cautioned Peter Richardson, vice president of research at US technology investment bank SoundView Technology.

"If a manufacturer is forced to develop a product for only one particular customer it is much more difficult to [pay back] the investment," he said.

It is still unclear when the i-Mode service will be launched in Europe. Both KPN and NTT Docomo maintain that work on the European service is on schedule. The introduction should take place before the end of this year or early next year.

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