Tools Of The Trade: The O<SUB>2</SUB> i-mode 3G service

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For many Japanese, the mobile phone is the main way of using the web. Out of a population of 127 million, the country's largest mobile internet service, NTT DoCoMo's i-mode, now has just under 46 million users.

O 2 has the exclusive rights to i-mode in the UK, but here the technology is still in its infancy: the company has only just started to ship i-mode phones that run over its 3G data network.

O 2 argues that you do not need a 3G phone for i-mode, and to an extent that is true: most services will work on a GPRS (2.5G) connection. But using the service on a 3G hand-set is a much more intuitive and satisfying experience.

The idea behind i-mode is that rather than ask mobile users to try to work their way around the world wide web - using a device with a small screen and a relatively slow connection - the service provider will gather the best of the internet together in one place. That way, it can ensure the sites work well on a handset.

In this respect, i-mode lives up to its promise: sites load quickly and most are reasonably easy to navigate, although it would be hard to navigate highly detailed information from, say, an online bank account on a small screen.

Some of the sites that O 2 has selected are more business focused than others. Ladbrokes and eBay might have less direct appeal than the BAA flight departures website. However, i-mode is relatively well served in terms of both regular and financial news, as well as travel information.

But email is more important to most business people on the move, and here i-mode has a way to go before it can really challenge services such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry or Microsoft's Windows Mobile infrastructure.

In Japan, most phone subscriptions come with a mobile email address already set up. In the UK, i-mode follows a similar model, with O 2 giving subscribers email addresses based on their mobile number.

It is possible, and actually quite easy, to change this to a personalised address. But businesses cannot, as it stands, use their own web addresses directly for mobile email.

Nor can an i-mode handset pick up messages directly from a different mailbox; the only reliable option is to have messages forwarded by the company's internet service provider.

These limitations might be enough to put off some business users. But for the self- employed or small businesses using internet-based email, i-mode could be a quite efficient and cost-effective solution. O 2 provides some phones for free, and browsing is charged at £3 per month for 2MB, if paid in advance.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5.

PROS: easy to use, quite fast, cheap.

CONS: only basic email support and no real business-grade handsets.

COST: £3 for 2MB data a month or £5 for 4MB a month, plus voice calls.