Japan's popular iMode mobile Internet service may come to the UK after all, its owner, Japanese mobile company NTT DoCoMo, has suggested.
DoCoMo has agreed to sell its entire 20 percent stake in Hutchison 3G - worth £120 million - back to its Hong Kong parent company Hutchison Whampoa, which leaves it free and with spare cash to team up with another UK operator to launch iMode.
Despite studying iMode as a commercial service for more than a year, Hutchison 3G has never gone with it. DoCoMo frustration was made clear by a spokesman earlier today: "We are open for alternatives in the future," he said. "This is an important market for iMode."
DoCoMo's decision to divest its stake in H3G UK ends months of speculation about its partnership with the 3G high-speed mobile Internet operator. In October, NTT DoCoMo head Keiji Tachikawa said the company was negotiating with other operators that "are willing to provide iMode in the UK".
The three most likely candidates for such a deal are O2, Orange and T-Mobile. Although BT would also be interested as it is desperate to get back in the mobile market after it sold off O2 to cover its debts in 2002.
Unlike earlier WAP offerings, iMode is an easily navigable package of pre-selected services. Its format is nearly identical to regular Web pages. NTT DoCoMo provides the software and branding and leaves mobile phone operators to cut deals with local content providers.
Designed for packet-based network technologies such as GPRS and Wideband CDMA, iMode has been particularly popular in Japan, where it has drawn more than 40 million subscribers, according to NTT DoCoMo. It is available in several European countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. In February, the service hit the one-million-subscriber mark in Europe.
Whether NTT DoCoMo will have any better luck convincing another operator to launch iMode in the UK remains to be seen. Orange and T-Mobile have already launched their own operator-branded mobile Internet services, following in the footsteps of Vodafone, Europe's largest mobile phone company, which has successfully launched its Live offering.