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AT&T-DoCoMo Alliance: This Changes Everything

[ASIA] It's no secret that, despite massive hype, consumer acceptance of the wireless Internet in the U.S. has been inconsequential. However, the recent acquisition by NTT DoCoMo of a stake in AT&T Wireless could help change all that.

When it announced the DoCoMo buy-in, AT&T also said it would license i-mode and to add a GSM "overlay" to its existing wireless system. Those two bits of technology news may well start the process of putting wireless in North America on a par with the rest of the world.

Toward Less Standard Confusion

Most of Europe and large tracts of the rest of the world use GSM but that over-the-air interface is relatively inconsequential in the U.S. However, because of its popularity worldwide, there is an impressive array of devices and applications available for GSM.

Once AT&T's GSM overlay is complete, those applications and devices can start being available in North America, which will foster more consumer acceptance.

For instance, I recently spent a few days with Ericsson's R380 World Net-ready phone and found it far more usable than other Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones. Its personal information capabilities are more powerful and easier to use, its screen is more viewable and, remarkably, the phone is smaller than my current WAP phone. Unfortunately for most North American users, it's only available for GSM.

Another advantage of GSM is that U.S. residents can more easily stay in touch as they roam the world. And many existing GSM applications, such as wireless payment, can start migrating to the U.S.

True, the well-heeled AT&T may be using the GSM overlay to put the hurt on competitors that can't afford parallel technologies. However, the greater good is that the move toward GSM helps the U.S. join the rest of the wireless world, providing a new body of products that should be attractive to users.

Here Comes i-Mode

Poor, poor WAP. First, its supporters overhyped it, then wireless operators made unattainable claims about it. Geoworks' seemingly successful patent claims on the technology hang like a dark cloud. Now, AT&T is embracing DoCoMo's competing i-mode technology.

WAP won't go away -- it is, by all accounts, too good a technology and it still is evolving. Plus, the existing investment in WAP is enormous. And, as WAP proponents point out, i-mode is proprietary. If you want to use it, you have to deal with DoCoMo. However, the AT&T/DoCoMo announcement makes it ever-more clear that WAP won't dominate.

Still, there are some silver linings in the AT&T-DoCoMo deal for WAP supporters. For one, DoCoMo agreed that it wouldn't partner with any other wireless operators in the U.S. It reportedly had been flirting with other operators such as Cingular. That keeps the way open for a pluralistic world in which WAP and i-mode co-exist.

Second, AT&T and DoCoMo also