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Toshiba to dial into European market

The company is looking to branch out of its typical markets with its first European handsets, which will use the Japanese I-mode Internet technology.

Slowly, cautiously and without undue haste, Toshiba is aiming to move into mobile phones in Europe.

The company, better known in Europe for its PC and consumer electronics, has announced its first European handset, the TS21i, at this year's CeBit.

While Toshiba has been shipping mobile phones to the United States and Asia for some time, this is its first tangle with a market dominated by European companies. Furthermore, it's using the Japanese technology I-mode to do it.

The TS21i will initially be available only through KPN Mobile in Germany and the Benelux countries. Charles Baxter, head of marketing for Toshiba's Mobile Communications division, said the company aims to move into the market through carefully built relationships with the phone networks and content providers. "What has brought us into this market is the change from voice-only to converged communications," Baxter said. He predicted that Toshiba's phones would be available in the United Kingdom at the end of this year.

The TS21i is the first phone in Europe to use I-mode, an alternative to WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) for displaying content on mobiles, which has been in use in Japan for three years. It needs dedicated content at present, and that's why Toshiba isn't making the phone widely available, despite being compatible with many existing networks. It uses GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) to access the I-mode data.

The TS21i has been designed in Europe, even though it will be manufactured in Taiwan. "Design is very important. We see it as part of brand building," said Baxter. The phone features a backlit color screen, an integrated antenna and polyphonic ring tones. There's certainly little difference in appearance between the TS21i and most phones from European manufacturers.

Toshiba is aiming for the mass consumer market for phones, and not necessarily the tech-aware early adopters that often buy new market entries. Because of this, the company will also be cautious in offering other technologies and features in its phones. Bluetooth, for instance, wasn't ready for phones because "it needs to work (the) first time out of the box," according to Baxter.

Toshiba may eventually add MP3 players, Java capabilities and certain digital cameras to its phones.

Jonathan Bennett reported from London.