Vodafone Group, Europe's largest mobile operator, has met its target of signing up one million customers for its Live! internet messaging and video-camera service within five months.
The group has sold 375,000 MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) phones in Germany, 220,000 in the UK and 190,000 in Italy. The service is also available in Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Spain.
Live! not only allows customers to take and transmit pictures, send and receive e-mail and access customised Web sites but also to download games and ring tones with phones that are easy to use.
The Vodafone announcement comes on the heels of a report published Wednesday by consultancy Analysys which showed strong mobile data usage in 2002 and forecasting substantial growth through 2008.
Mobile operators in Western Europe generated an average 12% of their revenue from non-voice services in 2002, with one operator, 02 (Germany), posting mobile data revenue of nearly 20% in the fourth quarter, according to the report.
Analysys expected revenue from non-voice mobile services in Western Europe to increase to 24% by 2005 and as high as 36% by 2008.
These numbers offer encouragement to mobile operators in the region after the disappointing launch of mobile data services based on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and the initial slow take-up of GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). Having spent more than €100bn on (third-generation) mobile broadband licences, European mobile phone operators are keen to spur demand for new mobile data services ahead of their 3G roll-out plans.
Vodafone could introduce commercial 3G service in Europe as early as October if sufficient quality handsets are available and manufacturers can ensure reliable call handover between 2G GSM and 3G networks, said Janine Young, a Vodafone spokeswoman.
"We aren't setting a hard date but are saying that we could be ready to roll in October or November if we have enough phones and no call-handover issues," she added.
In the meantime, Vodafone will introduce Live! in Egypt, New Zealand and Australia over the next few weeks.
Japan could also be another market for Live!. At present, Vodafone offers a mobile Internet service, called J-Sky, through its majority-owned Japanese subsidiary J-Phone.
"This service was launched three years ago and designed specifically for Japanese users," she said. "But Live! could be a possibility for Japan. We're considering this."
Vodafone hopes to see a huge chunk of its 112.5 million worldwide subscriber base sign up for its MMS offering, in addition to winning new customers.
In Europe, Vodafone has already stolen the early lead of NTT DoCoMo, which has introduced its I-mode mobile internet service in several countries. I-mode has between 400,000 and 500,000 I-mode subscribers in Europe after nearly a year of commercial service, according to Kei-ichi Enoki, managing director of DoCoMo's I-mode domestic and international business unit.