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DoCoMo to link I-mode with vending machines

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(IDG) -- NTT DoCoMo Inc. is taking its first step towards enabling users of the hit I-mode wireless Internet service to make purchases using their cellular telephones. The company announced plans Wednesday to launch a pilot scheme with Coca Cola (Japan) Co. Ltd. and Itochu Corp. that will enable users to buy soft drinks through the I-mode system.

The ability to make cashless purchases using I-mode is a major goal for NTT DoCoMo, which is planning to make it the next major upgrade to the service after the addition of support for Java applets was launched recently, company sources told IDG News Service, and the carrier has been working on the project for at least six months.

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The new "I-vending" service will be launched on a trial basis in the middle of the year in Tokyo and will give users the chance not only to purchase drinks but also to build up points which can be redeemed for drinks or free products. Points will be accumulated through viewing advertisements and messages on handsets. In order to use the service, users will have to sign up at DoCoMo's web site. Cash can then be loaded into their I-vending electronic wallet through vending machines.

How the vending machine will recognize the cellular telephone handset has yet to be determined, said Michiko Mori, a spokeswoman for DoCoMo, although one possibility is through the display of a bar code on the telephone screen which can then be read by the vending machine. DoCoMo has already tested this technology on a limited basis by issuing movie tickets via I-mode. A bar code on the cell phone screen is scanned by the movie theater allowing the owner to gain admission.

The project is not the only work NTT DoCoMo is doing in the field of cashless purchasing. Late last year it and ten other companies, including Sony Corp. and several major banks, announced plans to make commercial Sony's Edy electronic money system. Today's announcement is not related to Edy, Mori said.

I-mode, launched just over two years ago, holds the distinction as the world's most popular wireless Internet service. With 21.4 million subscribers, the service delivers e-mail, news and information, entertainment and games and other services to users who have compatible handsets. The most recent innovation was support for Java applets which is initially largely being used to deliver games.

The Japanese carrier isn't the first in the world to link money with cellular telephone terminals. A number of trials are running around the world which enable users to either spend prepaid cash or swipe their bank card through the telephone in order to make cashless purchases. Cell phones are viewed as suitable terminals for this technology because they are carried almost constantly by owners and have the means to communicate with other computers to verify purchases.



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