The limited number of I-mode handsets has caused the slow sign up of NTTDoCoMo service in Europe, claims Kei-ichi Enoki, managing director of DoCoMo's I-mode domestic and international business unit at the mobile internet service.
"Content is not an issue, nor is technology," said Enoki. "The lack of handset variety is the major reason why there aren't as many I-mode subscribers in Europe as we would like to see."
I-mode has between 400,000 and 500,000 I-mode subscribers in Europe after nearly a year of commercial service, Enoki said.
By comparison, the rival Live! mobile internet service launched by Vodafone last year attracted more than 400,000 customers in just over three months.
Several mobile phone makers have announced plans to join NEC and Toshiba in delivering I-mode-capable phones for the European market, according to Enoki.
"They're going to help increase the number of I-mode subscribers substantially," he said. The suppliers include Mitsubishi and Samsung.
Mitsubishi plans to introduce a phone in March and Samsung is hoping to launch of its latest phone with an integrated digital camera and Java technology in the first quarter of 2004. NEC also plans to launch a Java-enabled phone by the middle of this year.
Some analysts say I-mode gave away its several-month lead to Live!, a messaging service that allows users to take and send pictures with integrated camera phones.
Enoki did not believe that camera phones have pushed I-mode to the sidelines.
"These phones are being really hyped up in Europe but it remains to be seen how much traffic they'll generate for mobile operators," Enoki said.
"When we introduced camera phones in Japan, we noticed that people used them quite a bit at the beginning but not so much any more. What many of them do now is take pictures with their camera phones, and then store and show them to friends on their handsets later."
European operators have also attracted numerous content providers. There could be more companies listed on the service's main menu, which allows operators to generate revenue through billing services, Enoki said, but plenty of websites are providing content for I-mode users to access with their phones.
"We started with 67 registered content providers in Japan, Enoki said. "We now have more than 3,500."
Content quality, however, is another issue. Industry critics claim I-mode lacks "compelling" content, or something people are willing to pay for. In a recent interview with Keiji Tachikawa, president and chief executive officer of DoCoMo, blamed I-mode's slow start in Europe on a lack of high-quality content.
Telefónica Móviles, one of Europe's largest mobile operators, should help boost I-mode's popularity on the continent, Enoki said. The Spanish operator plans to introduce I-mode in Spain. It will join E-Plus, KPN Mobile, Base and Bouygues Telecom.