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Ben Harvey never liked i-Mode

Harvey’s back today with a view on i-Mode and why browsing the web on mobile is a total arse…

– – – – – –

One of the big stories this week – apart from David Beckham signing up for a pub-team in LA – was that O2 are junking their i-Mode service after two years of not managing to persuade people to access the internet over their mobiles.

This announcement was greeted with unhappy surprise by O2 shareholders. However, it’s been a stonking liability for a while now – as the article above explains in terms that even I can comprehend, the basic problem was that O2 say they have a UK usership of 18 million (…hmmmn…), but only 3% or so actually ever bothered signing up to i-Mode.

3% has always been one of my favourite percentages, by the way, because it’s a whore to whatever you need it for; it’s small enough to be a damning indictment of failure (and nicely ironic, given 3’s own ventures into the internet) but large enough just to give you the tiniest sliver of hope. For example, I imagine that O2 management will having to be restrained bodily by their PA staff, lest they hurl themselves, Lemming-like, from atop their office-blocks, but then again, if 3% of the girls that I asked out for a drink said yes then I would be ecstatically drowning in my own joy-fluids.

It’s all a question of perspective.

However, it does raise the following question: i-Mode was meant to be a bridging-step between WAP and the regular, grown-up internet. It was meant to provide all the services that you need when you’re out on the move in a simple, low-bandwidth fashion, to the extent that the providers of these services (tickets, news-streams, the usual suspects) actually went to the trouble of making them i-Mode friendly. So you’ve got a service that’s fantastically easy to use, a Billy & Johnny version of the net that even your parents could find their way around, and what happened?

Nobody bloody used it.

The mobile industry has always had a strange relationship with the internet. Ever since handsets went from being cinderblocks (barked into by brace-clad brokers when the 80s turned into the 90s) and actually got themselves a screen everyone could instantly see that it was obvious how the two would grow up together, find that they had more & more in common, settle down, have a few kids. That sort of thing.

It’s very much like Friends – you knew, from the very start, that Rachel and Ross will get married and live happily ever after. That analogy is a good one, actually, because it stretches to embrace that, even though it’s a fait accompli, you just wish you could cut out the nine years of false-starts, miscommunications, tears, tantrums & slapstick.

People used to point at the glacially-slow takeoff of mobile internet-use (glacially-slow, at least, into the vast, bovine herds of the Great Unwashed) as being due to price-sensitivity. They thought that the peasantry of this country had a demand-elasticity as saggy as their bingo-wings. And that was a good excuse, for a while, because the £/MB rate was a touch high to start with. But now, with so many packages coming with free or suicidally-cheap download-rates, why isn’t every bugger lapping it up?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

When I was writing this article I started to think of all the possible reasons why it’s taking so much effort to port the net over to mobiles. Why had some of the most brilliant minds on the planet, when it comes to marketing & design & technology, why had they not been able to produce one killer-app, one set of utilities so useful, or interesting, or just plain amusing enough to get the residual millions to actually use their handsets to their full, deliciously-lucrative potential?

The answer, unfortunately, is simple. It’s not because consumers can’t get to the internet through their handsets. It’s not because it’s too expensive. It’s not about firewalls or socket-layers or the vagaries of GPRS in rural areas.

It’s because the internet is completely incompatible, as an idea, to mobile phones.

The internet is about two things – it’s about email, and it’s about content. Email over mobile phones is either short and to the point (thus becoming a text-message, and I think we’ve kinda got that sorted) or so clunky to input into your device that you get pissed-off and buy a Blackberry.

And trying to put internet content through mobile handsets is a misnomer – magazines & tabloids are the size they are for a reason; printers have had a few hundred years of cut-throat evolution to decide the right balance between the amount of data that humans like to be presented with, in one go, and the size of the medium that they like that data to be presented upon. It should come as no surprise to you that your laptop is roughly the same dimensions as your copy of GQ.

All of this points, quite logically, to the inescapable conclusion that anyone that tries to display run-of-the-mil internet-pages (big, bandwidth-heavy) through a mobile phone (small, bandwidth-allergic) is an idiot.

So – it doesn’t matter how high a resolution you can squeeze onto your handset – if it’s not a tablet, and if it’s not a PDA, then it’s going to be crummy at web-browsing. Why has it taken the industry so long to realise this? I don’t care about how you compress or render text or images. I don’t care about your zoom-functions. These are bolt-on patches, jerry-rigged half-measures to beat the internet into a pulp that’s fine enough to be digested by the handsets that 90% of the populace have nestled in their coat pocket. And I certainly don’t care that the Japanese have been doing it for years – firstly, they’re bonkers and, secondly, they’re cheating; it’s a lot easier for them, on account of having those dodgy letters in their alphabet that mean a few thousand words each.

But if it’s a losing game, why play at all? Firstly, it’s inevitable. Someone, somewhere is going to come up with a clever way of making stacks of cash out of this, and so it might as well be you. Secondly, all it’s going to take, really, is someone somewhere being fiendish enough to make it indispensable. Imagine, if you will, Facebook through your handset – something basic enough to work cleanly but structured enough to remain its utility. I don’t mean – current rubbish that requires you to enter your password everytime you want to login via your handset. Whoever it is that comes up with FacebookMobile that works properly is going to laughing all the way to the bank.

And who knows – maybe they might trailblaze a new way to chip the best bits off the internet that isn’t a complete waste of our valuable time…


  1. Um I use on my phone without ever having to input my ID and password each time.. I use a N70 on t-mobile with Opera Mini. Ditto with and the gmail Java app. Occasionally, I get asked to put in my id and password with gmail (which is a good thing, as they’re still checking I’m me) but otherwise passwords ‘n stuff seem to be stored.

    However, if you go to from your mobile, then it just doesn’t work, at all.


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