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On Mobile Number Portability in Japan and Softbank October 31, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Internet, IT, Japan.
3 comments

MNP (mobile number portability) began in Japan last week, and the first week has been fairly interesting, with Softbank again being in the news.

MNP is a scheme whereby you can take your mobile phone number with you when you switch carriers, something that was not possible in Japan until last week. (Importantly, in this land where we have grown accustomed to email rather than SMS on mobile phones, you can’t take your old email address)

Anyway, Softbank launched a PR blitz to coincide with the MNP start, announcing “Zero Yen calls and SMS/MMS” (but with the small print saying that the calls/messaging have to be between Softbank users, and this applied only if you subscribed to a 27 month contract, with hefty charges for early cancellation, and MMS/mail is subject to an additional 300 yen/mth charge). The Fair Trade Commission has announced that it is launching an investigation into this advertising campaign, fearing that it might be misleading (hmm. I wonder who might have complained)

Then, on the weekend, as users rushed to take advantage of MNP, Softbank’s MNP management system went down. Softbank announced that this was due to the unexpectedly high number of users who had attempted to switch over.

Today, KDDI(au) and NTT DoCoMo announced figures for the subscriber gains/losses for the week since MNP kicked off. Softbank declined to publish figures.

KDDI is claiming a net gain of approx 80,000 users, 101,200 new users joining from other networks and 20,600 who left au to go elsewhere. DoCoMo says they lost 60,000 users net (within expected range), though they point out they had a net gain of 3,000 users between themselves and Softbank. That would mean that Softbank actually lost at least 20,000 users last week. Regardless of Masayoshi Son’s attempt to make the system failure fiasco look like a victim of Softbank’s success, it would appear that Softbank is loosing customers. The losses may have been bigger if their systems had not gone down.

The media is crawling all over this story, a news programme last night had one of its reporters visit the flagship Softbank store in Roppongi in the evening, to see how long it would take to make the switch to Softbank. The reporter waited for more than two hours before her number came up, only to be told that her request could not be processed immediately and the earliest she could get a new phone would be the next morning….. Couldn’t they have told people who were waiting that it was unlikely that they would be able to process them, before making them wait a couple of hours?

So, Round One of the MNP battle seems to show KDDI/au as the clear winner, with Softbank being the biggest loser with the negative publicity it has received.

In other news, KDDI launches its SNS service in collaboration with GREE, the #2 Japanese SNS site on Nov 16th…

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Japanese Media vs YouTube, round 1 October 20, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Japan, Media.
4 comments

JASRAC has apparently been spearheading a drive by Japanese broadcasters and rights holder organisations to target unauthorised use of copyright material on YouTube.

Earlier this month, JASRAC and 22 other corporations and organisations held a week long blitz targetting YouTube, which resulted in 29,549 takedown notices being submitted to YouTube, all of which apparently were complied with.

Looking beyond the usual accusations (which have a certain amount of merit) of media companies acting like dinosaurs stuck in an outdated paradigm,  one has to consider the complexity of the various asserted rights which are attached to a piece of typical piece of video material. Even for a re-run on broadcast television, broadcasters often have to contact all parties involved to get approval (and this process takes weeks or even months of tracking down the rightsholders), as the original contracts are usually narrow in scope and most certainly didn’t have internet broadcasting in mind.

It isn’t a simple matter of broadcasters signing a distribution deal with YouTube, given the number of programmes which they broadcast.

Going forward, broadcasters might start framing contracts to allow more varied use and reuse of material and build up a improved framework within which they can track all contractual obligations (and associated financial payments), but in the mean time, they cannot just ignore the fact that they themselves have contractual obligations which most likely include enforcement of rights of individuals and parties who appear in or are involved in making broadcast content.

Then there is the reality that a lot of content is created by legally separate production houses, which are likely to vary widely on their management of data pertaining to rightsholders associated with each piece of content they produce. Even if they did have contact records for rightsholders initially, contact details do change and it may be very difficult to contact rightsholders especially for older pieces of media footage.

Whilst it is attractive to the user to have comprehensive archives made available, the task of retroactively (re)identifying, reconnecting and renegotiating with interested parties is a huge undertaking which costs time and money. The financial rewards for such an effort may just not make economic sense.

I’m not saying that JASRAC and other such organisations don’t need to catch up with the times (they certainly do), but I think that the issues involved are far more complex than many people who aren’t media lawyers or working in the rights department at a media firm may realise.

Interesting development in the Huser/Aneha scandal October 19, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in crime, Japan, Media.
3 comments

The first “victim” of the Huser/Aneha scandal was handed a suspended sentence yesterday, for providing false information in a notarised document. The crime was related to a stock issue at eHomes, a company which performed structural engineering safety checks and which was involved in the Huser/Aneha affair having signed off on several cases where the structural engineering calculations were falsified by Aneha.

From a Japan Times article back in July:

Togo Fujita, president of eHomes Inc., and a key figure in the building safety fraud centered on former architect Hidetsugu Aneha, pleaded guilty July 7 to falsifying financial documents in 2001 to gain state certification to conduct structural engineering safety checks.

At the first session of his Tokyo District Court trial, Fujita admitted his company falsely stated it had 50 million yen in capital when it had only 23 million yen. The 50 million yen figure is the minimum required for certification.

“I am deeply sorry and apologize to those involved,” Fujita said.

EHomes failed to spot faked quake-resistance data in 37 of the 99 buildings that Aneha designed since 1996. Fujita was arrested April 26 after he fell under scrutiny in connection with the Aneha scandal.

EHomes’ inspection license was revoked by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry in May, and the company went out of business.

So, it takes 3 months from the time a guilty plea is submitted until a sentence is handed down. What speedy justice. Not unheard of in Japan, but a paranoid person might read more into this. (It should also be noted that the court did not find Fujita guilty of any active collusion in the actual safety fraud incidents)

Timed to coincide with the verdict announcement, the mysterious Japanese blogger Kikko has posted what is claimed to be a statement penned by Togo Fujita.

The main points were that, after the Huser/Aneha frauds were revealed, eHomes found similar problems with another major housing and hotel developer, Apa Group. Fujita claimes that an architect who worked on Apa projects had boasted that he had been employing the same falsification techniques as Aneha way before Aneha had been doing so, and the architect opined that plenty of other architects have been doing much the same.

The Apa Group founder is said to be another key figure in the AnShinKai(案晋会), which is a group which supports Shinzo Abe, the current Japanese Prime Minister.

Another interesting detail comes to light, specifically that the Asahi Shimbun was contacted by Fujita who also provided details of Apa Group’s alleged frauds, but one of the reporters assigned to this case died in February just as the newspaper was picking up on the Apa Group allegations, and the relationship fizzled out at this point.

More importantly, the mainstream media still appears to be content to censor Fujita, who distributed a copy of the statement to the press at the post trial press conference. The mainstream media has thus far only covered the trial verdict and made a passing comment about the press conference where Fujita apparently made some interesting comments, naming some names. No mention of the distributed statement.

A follow up from Fujita was posted on Kikko’s blog again today.

He makes the observation that the Huser/Aneha affair should not be characterised as a building safety fraud scandal, but rather the real scandal is the fact that this incident has been portrayed as an isolated affair involving a rogue developer and architect when real issue should be the complicity of bureaucrats in the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry and in the local authorities who have firstly been allowed to operate a flawed system to vet building safety, and secondly to make the incident appear as if it was an isolated incident.

The media appears to be content to play along, as it has no doubt done for decades. This just reinforces my view of the Japanese media as a mouthpiece for political and economic interests who do not have a single bone of journalistic integrity between the whole lot of them. Perhaps they will argue that real journalism is too dangerous in Japan, and maybe they are right.

I suspect that Fujita only got to where he did within the notoriously backward and corrupt construction industry by playing by the rules, and don’t think he is some sort of saint.  I suspect it is partly that he’s angry that he has been singled out and is out to drag as many people down with him, but if his timeline is correct, he may indeed have seen the light some time at the end of last year and attempted to make a genuine effort to expose the real scale of the problem, and show that the bureaucrats are heavily involved. (Lots of ex-Ministry bureaucrats get nice jobs at the construction companies when they leave the Ministry, as well)

It would appear that Fujita’s efforts endangered both bureaucrats and Shinzo Abe’s friends in industry, a dangerous set of enemies at a time when Abe was being carefully positioned to replace Koizumi as Prime Minister.

The Anshinkai(案晋会) certainly seems to have interesting members (APA Group, HIS, Huser), the deceased Noguchi-san from HIS Securities who died in the midst of the Livedoor scandal was apprently a member as well.

I doubt information of this nature would have been made available in pre-internet Japan, certainly the power of the participative internet (as exemplified by blogs, SNS and more fundamentally by a much higher number of wired people) is changing the rules by which incidents are reported, and mainly for the better.

Softbank Mobile pulls an old Softbank BB marketing trick October 18, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Japan.
3 comments

Softbank Mobile (the rebranded Vodafone Japan) has announced that it will be giving away repeater antennas for users who have problems with reception indoors. The antennas are worth about JPY20,000 and they also pay for the fitting (apparently the total cost is around JPY50,000).

It reminds me of the marketing ploy employed by Softbank Yahoo BB in (successfully) promoting their ADSL service by having scantily clad women (which I recall quickly became non-descript guys and gals in less provocative clothing) on street corners giving away ADSL routers (which you had to buy or lease with other providers). Of course, you had to sign up to the Yahoo BB ADSL service for like an eternity, probably, with a hefty cancellation charge for early termination.

I’m sure the same free but with a mandatory long term commitment model is in play here…. I wonder if the antenna is configured to be useless for non-Softbank Mobile networks which operate on similar frequencies….

Sony Mylo to launch in Japan October 18, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, Internet, Japan.
1 comment so far

Sony has apparently decided that it will sell the Mylo in Japan. Available at SonyStyle and shipping from mid-december. Mylo is a handheld “personal communicator” with QWERTY keyboard, wireless LAN connectivity, has Skype and Google Talk installed and the Japanese version also has a music application called Playlog installed, this seems to be a Last.fm type application/web service/SNS type community which allows sharing of listening histories (and communities based around music). Playlog software is also available for PCs, and there is also a blog widget available too.

Unfortunately, Mylo doesn’t do Flash so no YouTube on Mylo, although there is Mylo advertising on YouTube.

There’s also a Mylo blog

Price, JPY45,000.

The Post Money Value: Free Advertising October 16, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Travel.
4 comments

The Post Money Value: Free Advertising

Fellow VC blogger Rick Segal had a post about the advertising power of stickers on his laptop, and I had a similar experience the other day so I thought I’d share it.

I have a Firefox sticker (or more accurately, a GetFirefox.jp sticker) on my laptop (I got a bunch of stickers from my friend Gen, who does his thing at Mozilla Japan), and last week travelling through SFO on my way back to Japan from a trip to the Valley, I had to pull my laptop out of my bag as I passed through customs. The guy at the X-ray machine took a quick look at my machine (a Panasonic Let’s Note, I think this is my 3rd Panasonic machine, and haven’t been tempted to switch to another brand since my first Panasonic – it is a 12″ screen B5 size model, with integrated DVD+RW/CD-RW drive weighing in at 1.2kg and with more than 7 hours of battery juice (I think the newest ones are more like 9-10 hours) and a thankfully small outboard power adaptor, unlike those bricks you get with certain other manufacturers), and instantly inquired if I worked “at Firefox”. I corrected him about the name of the organisation which develops Firefox, and said that I don’t work at Mozilla, but have a friend who does.

I was pleasantly surprised that the Firefox logo was instantly recognisable even to an employee of the TSA, but then maybe that was because this was San Francisco.

In any case, from my brief chat with the TSA guy and the body language of his colleagues, it seems that Firefox is “cool” even outside the IT/internet echo chamber. Whilst the security guys were frisking other people left, right, and center (it was quiet and I guess they were trying to alleviate boredom by opening the bags of nearly everyone going through), I was whisked through by the cheeriest bunch of TSA people I have had the pleasure of meeting since 9/11….

So, apparently I am now a modern day sandwich board man for the Firefox movement, but that’s all good, because I’m all for what the guys at Mozilla are doing. (and if it helps me get through US security quicker than otherwise might be the case, all the better)

From eWeek: Are Laser HDTVs on the Horizon? October 16, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in electronics.
4 comments

Are Laser HDTVs on the Horizon?

You betcha. (Or at least, we’re betting on it. Our firm has an investment in Novalux)
If eWeek had done its homework, it would have been aware that a couple of Japanese electronics giants have relationships with Novalux (Mitsubishi and Epson), and both Matsushita and Canon have also shown propriatary laser projection TV systems.

RPTV has come a long way, and improvements in screen and optics technologies have produced significant improvements in picture quality and form factor (JVC recently launched a RPTV which is less than 30cm thick which allows wall mounting – it is also significantly lighter than a PDP/LCD screen of comparable size, which also potentially means less reinforcement surgery for your walls).

Laser light engines will allow for even slimmer form factors due to simplified optics requirements and smaller and simpler light engines, reduced weight (again due to the light engine form factor/complexity and  reduced optics), improved colour gamut, improved electrical efficiency and much improved light source lifetimes over existing UHP light bulb technology. Another often underlooked advantage of RPTV technology is its relative eco-friendly nature compared to LCD and PDP technologies. For a start, both LCD and PDP technologies require a lot of glass, which happens to contain not insignificant amounts of lead. Further, the semiconductor content in RPTVs is much, much smaller, which means a lot less semiconductor processing required for each unit. A laser based RPTV also has significant electrical efficiency advantages too.

There will be laser RPTV models on display at CES in Las Vegas in January, hopefully from several manufacturers.

Whilst PDP technology appears attractive on the shop floor with high brightness and apparently crisp images, a comparison of two properly calibrated machines will reveal the superiority of the RPTV devices for a high quality display. Of course, some people will prefer the over-hyped images projected by a badly configured PDP, in the same way that they will be attracted to the boom ‘n’ tizz aural nightmare of a boom box over a real hi-fi.

I’ve seen the future of high end TV in my home, and it is a laser RPTV. At least for the larger form factors and with the requisite ambient environment. (Optimally with a LCoS imaging panel, rather than a DLP implementation, as far as I am concerned)

There will no doubt be a market for PDP displays (especially in commercial settings perhaps, where the need for high brightness and wide viewing angle are pretty much mandatory), but LCD rules the sub-40 inch market and I foresee that next generation RPTVs will be dominant in the 50+ inch market, pushing out PDP. LCDs are growing larger in size too, but manufacturing difficulties and yield issues make mass production of 60+ inch LCDs at a competitive price point unrealistic.
Even at lower price points, the economic arguments for RPTV seem compelling. Certainly one does not need to invest $2-3 Billion for the infrastructure required to produce the required parts, and this must translate into lower prices for the consumer. Both the laser light source manufacturers and imaging device (DLP, LCoS) manufacturers seem confident that a (sustained) $1000 price point for a 60V display is achievable. I doubt that the same can be said for competing technologies, at least not the ones on the market now (or for SED, the Canon/Toshiba effort which has been delayed but may see the light of day next year, finally). Further afield, we may see polymer based display technologies (OLED and the like), but that is likely to be significantly beyond 2010, if they can get things like carrier mobility up to the levels required to display high quality video. (I do think the technical hurdles will be overcome in time, and then with the likes of inkjet printing techniques available will open the door to mass produced large format displays which will be thin and lightweight)

DrecomWanted, rewards for finding people October 16, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Japan.
2 comments

Drecom launched an alpha version of their DrecomWanted service in September. This service allows users who are finding a particular individual or someone who fits the right profile to post their requests together with a reward, which is shared by the network of people through which the target is identified. It launched with the CEO of Drecom putting up a not insubstantial reward to find his childhood sweetheart.

I felt at the time that this particular type of usage was particularly distasteful, perhaps seeding a hoard of internet bounty hunters driven by the cash reward. A hoard of amateur private investigators looking for people is a scary though. Abuse of the system by users lying about their motivations to find particular individuals must be considered a serious possibility.

However, I could see that the concept itself could be used effectively in certain markets, in particular to disintermediate the recruitment/headhunter industry. The UK startup Zubka promises exactly that. Headhunters get a pretty nice performance bonus for referring successful candidates (30% of the candidate’s 1st year compensation is pretty normal). A site like Zubka which disintermediates these recruitment professionals and instead taps the professional networks of individuals working in industry (or even allows headhunters to earn some money on the side?) could probably function with taking a lower cut and splitting it with the referrer (and perhaps the candidate as well).

Disruptive businesses are often about shrinking the pie as much as growing it, if the new businesses are built leveraging technology to allow them to operate more efficiently than their legacy counterparts. By adding features like rating referrers and perhaps also throwing in a bit of LinkedIn type social networking functionality to even extend the services beyond pure referrals and providing an environment to carry out much of the recruitment process on the site, such sites could probably attract some decent leads from industry professionals.

Then again, the model could probably be replicated by an established SNS, especially one that contains a higher proportion of career professionals (rather than high school or university students) – like LinkedIn, perhaps.

New Japanese video site launches tomorrow October 16, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Japan.
8 comments

Yawn.

Another domestic YouTube clone service.

This time, brought to you by Excite Japan.

Apparently powered by a Japanese would-be YouTube clone venture, PeeVee.TV.

Both Excite and PeeVee promote their services as a way of sharing home-made video content. But let’s face the facts. YouTube’s “success” was basically down to the unauthorised copyright content hosted on the site, and their skillful game of cat and mouse with the copyright holders as it built up mindshare.
I really don’t see much of a market a site which is purely dedicated to acts of attempted public masturbation (this is a metaphor, obviously) on camera. What is the compelling reason to use these services rather than YouTube or even GoogleVideo or the domestic WatchMe.TV (which has the backing of Fuji TV) ? I just don’t see these services going anywhere.

On cross media advertising October 13, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, IT, Japan.
1 comment so far

Media watchers in Japan will note the increase in advertisements on TV, the printed media, posters and the like using keywords rather than (or augmenting) URLs.

The findings related to a recent poll relating to this phenomenon are discussed in recent articles (here, and here, in Japanese) and dutifully reported in English here (What Japan Thinks is a great resource for translated opinion poll summaries and commentary).

I believe the popularity of keywords is not unrelated to the fact that the majority of the Japanese population are still not as comfortable with the latin alphabet as is required for a truly pain-free web experience. Alternative strategies have been attempted, Japanese URLs are available, and initiatives such as Internet Number have also been around for a long time, but neither have really hit the mainstream.

I think it could be argued that the success of QR codes (2D barcodes, most cameraphones have bundled readers which can read the encoded URL data which allows users to jump to a (mobile phone optimised) web page by pointing the camera at the barcode and then allowing the phone to access the internet) is also related to this aspect of the language barrier, not just the inconvenience of typing out an URL on a phone keypad (and this would suggest that other geographies where the latin script is not ubiquitous will be fertile markets for such technologies, starting with the mobile phone interface).

Anyway, getting back on topic, this trend is no doubt a boon for the SEO/SEM businesses, several of which are publicly listed here in Japan. (Here is an example of a blog written by an employee at a SEO firm showing examples – there is no disclosure as to if the examples are related in any way to the firm’s clients) However, the use of keywords may expose companies to the risk of being targetted for an alternative cybersquatting type attack, or at least exposing search users to results which may not be in the best interests of the advertiser. A company with a not so shiny corporate social responsibility profile may be targetted by social activist groups for example, and because the keywords are chosen deliberately for their lack of results returned, it may be easier for such groups to get to the top of the results page. A less socially useful example may be if gray market importers, porn merchants, spam website operators or sploggers get in on the act.

Given the fact that the TV and major print media advertising is firmly in the possession of major advertising agencies, one could take the view that this cross media advertising is an attempt by the old world advertising agencies and media to maintain control over the advertising relationships whilst giving advertisers an opportunity to expand into internet advertising. The preferred model for the incumbents is of course for them to retain the customer relationships and relegate the new internet advertising shops to a sub-contractor relationship.