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MoF to post debt clock on homepage July 31, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Finance, Japan, Politics.
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The Ministry of Finance is apparently going to post a “debt clock” on its homepage (reported here). The clock will show the amount of long term debt the nation is burdened with and how that is changing (increasing) with time . Japan’s long term debt is expected to rise to JPY773Trillion (JPY773,000,000,000,000) by year end 2007. That is about $60,000 for every man, woman and child. And increasing at a pace of JPY190,000 every second.

Then add the Financing Bills and short term debt, and
total debt tops JPY1x10^15….

Japanese debt clocks (such as this one here) have been around for years, one has to question why the MoF is getting around to doing this now. Are they seeing the light? Perhaps, but my money is on the theory that they are beginning a PR drive (with the cooperation of the media) to remind the public how indebted the nation is, as part of a plan to lower resistance to tax rises (and cuts in handouts) in the near future. (all the while continuing to funnel money to their pet projects and institutions which they will later join on retiring from the civil service, no doubt)

Update 8/1: Having had a look at the MoF homepage this morning, I don’t see the reported debt clock anywhere…. I’m going to keep an eye on the site to see if it does eventually appear. For a prefecture by prefecture breakdown, see here.

Interesting graphics/animation tech July 31, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, IT, Japan.

New start-up in Japan called Motion Portrait (incorporated just earlier this month), out of Sony’s R&D labs.

Their technology demo is the photo at top-right of the home page. More demos at the bottom of this page. More information here (PDF in English courtesy of MP’s distributor).

A quick and easy way to create avatars (not only from photos, works also with cartoons/anime, even with animals) which can express emotional expression, the company provides several potential uses in a B2C environment as well, targetting potential users such as on-line spectacles/glasses sites, cosmetics, hair products, etc.

Currently funded entirely by So-net Capital Partners.

More on the plug-in Prius July 27, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Energy, Japan.
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Looks like Toyota showed off their new Prius based plug-in hybrid.

First thought.

Looks expensive.  (it isn’t going to go on sale any time soon)

The new car weighs a full 100kg more than the standard Prius, pretty much all of this is rechargeable batteries. (the plug-in recharger electronics aren’t going to be that heavy)

That pretty much triples the battery capacity (actually, add a bit more due to the switch from Ni-MH to Li-ion).

Full EV range is quoted as 13km, based on the unintelligible Japanese 10.15 mode standard.

For people who are prone to doing short trips, significant savings in fuel costs would appear possible.

Next stop, selling a solar panel roofed carport (or a module on the roof of the house proper) to further cut down on energy expenses. (Honda seems to be making more visible moves in this area, to be fair…)

Google Open Day July 27, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Japan.

Yesterday I went down to Google Japan’s HQ in Shibuya for their Open Day (open evening. whatever).

To be perfectly honest, the whole thing was a bit of a disappointment. For anyone who follows GOOG, there really was nothing new. The talks lacked spontaneity, and came across as carefully scripted.

It seems pretty much the same pitch (or portions thereof)  as was given to Businessweek for their fluff piece, and I have to admit I had the same impression of the pitch as Valleywag. Repeating “we are really humble” like a mantra isn’t going to convince anyone who can think for themselves.

Last night, some apparently important marketing guy (I think he was they guy introduced as being “one of the busiest guys at GOOG”, and they even shared his recent travel schedule with us. Are we meant to be in awe of some guy because he racks up the air miles? Or grateful that he has found time in his ultra-busy schedule to speak us?) from HQ just decided to read from slides.  I found that to be borderline offensive. I think most of us can actually read. Does GOOG really want people who made an effort to turn up to the event to feel that their guys can’t be bothered to make an effort for the audience?

There was minimal discussion of what GOOG is trying to do specifically in the local market. They made a point up front about how they have more than half the world’s market share in search. Conveniently they neglected to mention that in Japan, they are lagging. They are making ground quickly, granted. If the company was really humble, they’d specifically acknowledge their position in the local market. And whilst there was a push in the presentation to drive home the point that users begetting users, and this being increasingly important to drive growth (viral marketing, network effects, etc etc), the marketing pitch lacked a genuine attempt at outreach.

Facta non verba.

Even more disappointing than the fluffy presentations were the questions from the floor. The first guy up introduced himself as a marcom guy from MSFT who, in what I though was a fairly aggressive/pointed manner for a guest, asked something along the lines of “what do you (GOOG) think is the best marcom strategy?”. Which was answered (or not) with some typical fluff response which was equally unnoteworthy. And it pretty much went downhill from there. I think the questions asked showed GOOG that the people asking the questions were not GOOG material, so I guess the event served some purpose (maybe not for marcom, but rather for HR…). It also felt like some of the Googlers were getting a little bit defensive at some of the questions. Maybe they expected a load of fanboys who would gush praise and give them an ego boost. What they actually got were people who were either agnostic or even antagonistic. I guess the silent majority may have been fanboys, difficult to tell. There was a pretty edgy vibe in the room, I thought.

It was almost as if the Googlers couldn’t understand why the audience weren’t lapping up the kool-aid.

If they are as good at “innovating” and “learning from mistakes” as they claim to be, their humility should allow them to acknowledge that they have a huge amount of work to do in the marcom area in Japan, and they’ll learn from last night. Just plying guests with free food and booze does not guarantee a friendly audience. (It does increase the likelihood of people dozing off during the talks, however….)

The several people I have had the pleasure to meet from GOOG (both Mountain View and in Japan) in the past have been bright, amicable guys, and their affiliations with GOOG reflected well on the company. To be honest I’m not sure I could say the same for everyone who was representing GOOG last night. There were some decent performers there, for sure, but also some stuff which was distinctly average. Average results really aren’t good enough if you claim to only hire the best and brightest.

One thing that did come across was the joyful glow of the local Googlers. These people certainly seem happy at working at GOOG. It certainly is a big difference from the typical Japanese corporate environment.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit harsh on GOOG in this post as I find many of these type of events rather lacking, being immersed in the bleeding edge of this sector, day in, day out. Still, if you talk the talk, you have to expect people to look very closely at your claims.  They have a huge pool of engineering talent to draw upon, and I sincerely wish them all the best in delivering new solutions to us. That is the surest way to win the hearts of the user base.

[To the Google marcom/PR team’s credit, they seem to have done a good job at winning the hearts of the local press, who certainly come across as fanboys and report each minor Google related news item with fervour. It certainly is a relatively cheap and extremely effective way to gain exposure, especially in Japan where journalism appears to be a concept alien to much of the media]

I repeat:

Facta non verba.

Nintendo DS sales top 18 million July 20, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, games, IT, Japan, Mobile.
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The Sankei Shimbun reports that domestic sales of the Nintendo DS handheld gaming console has topped 18 million units.

That number translates to one DS for every 7 people. Of course, some of these DSes have been shipped overseas, due to the region-free nature of these devices. Global sales exceeded 40 million units in March, and this suggests there is potential for Nintendo to grow sales outside Japan if it can replicate the model of getting users outside the traditional gaming audience to buy the device.

Most of the DS commercials on TV feature titles which are not games in the traditional sense of the word. There is everything from e-books to brain training to language training to interactive cookbooks and more.

More than a year after the launch of the DS lite, many shops sellout as soon as they stock them. (The Wii is even harder to obtain. The PS3 on the otherhand is plentiful)

I can’t help but wonder if the $100 laptop approach is really a better option than getting Nintendo to supply something based on the DS. Better battery life and real portability.

It can also be used to teach people to actually write as well as type.

Toyota to launch plug-in hybrid Prius July 19, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, Energy, Japan.
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The Asahi Shimbun reports that Toyota is set to file papers to allow it to test a new plug-in hybrid version of its Prius on the open road.

A fully electric plug-in vehicle of reasonable proportions for a single car household at a reasonable price and energy efficiency is still a way off, thus this plug-in hybrid approach is attractive, assuming that the electricity generation and delivery process results in a net decrease in CO2 emissions (which is a fair assumption given the current state of the electricity generation industry, and especially if the recharging is done preferentially at low power usage times where a proportionately higher percentage of the power generation is non-fossil fuel derived).

The technical highlight is the fact that Toyota are apparently switching to Li-ion technology.

A single full charge is only good for 15-20km range in full EV mode, but with advances in telematics and other innovations (including perhaps in social infrastructure), a significant portion of the daily use may be runnable in EV mode, at least in certain locales where typical trip distances are small (and even if the car has to revert to normal ICE assisted hybrid mode, the 15-20km worth comes off the top line CO2 footprint)

I think that the key is the improved telematics and other software which will allow maximum exploitation of the electrical storage capacity. Encouraging and educating users to use networked trip planners which are integrated to the in-car navigation and telematics systems would potentially allow an operating profile which maximises stored electrical energy usage. It shouldn’t be too hard for Toyota to build that functionality on top of (or in place of) their G-Book navigation system and integrate with the rest of the car electronics.

Of course, getting away from the whole “owning a car is a status symbol” mindset would be nice, especially in Tokyo. (I fully understand that if one lives in the suburbs or the countryside, one car per person is pretty much mandatory)

MiiStation chosen as one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Websites for 2007 July 18, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Media.

Congratulations to Matt and team.

When MiiStation.com launched and got Dugg (and also mentioned in the WSJ), there were some people who were sceptical of the service, but I think this is a good example of a service which caters to the less technical savvy (and/or lazy) users who actually comprise the bulk of people on-line.

Matt and friends have recently launched another site, 2kurabe.com, which is basically a Wii Vote channel for the web (including a widget to allow you to add the app to your blog).

Matt, can we expect a Facebook app version? Integration with something like MyBlogLog or similar would also be interesting….

Beyond the casual entertainment value, this type of app which can be used to profile users would be complimentary to other services which attempt to deliver targetted content or advertising….

i-mode’s global expansion is faltering July 18, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, IT, Mobile, Overseas, technology.
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Reuters reports that both Telstra (Aus) and O2 (UK) are abandoning i-mode.

I guess this just highlights the difference between the mobile scene in Japan vs elsewhere.

I would like to point out that the following statement from an industry analyst:

 “In the i-mode business model, operators keep only a small amount of content revenue, making most of their money by charging for data network usage,” […] “But regular users of the Internet on mobiles will become increasingly dissatisfied with ‘having the meter running’ while they surf, and the trend is already moving in favour of flat-rate data tariffs.”

is misleading in that flat rate tarrifs are available with i-mode on DoCoMo, and as such the i-mode business model is not tied to a metered data service.

If the reports of the O2/Apple iPhone deal are correct, I would suggest that O2 is betting that users will embrace the “full” internet on the phone and make i-mode redundant.

I’m still not convinced that continously zooming and scrolling to read a page not optimized for a phone’s limited size is the best option for users….

The iPhone’s magic powers of memory recall July 9, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in IT, Mobile, technology.

This post originated as a comment to a post by Michael Parekh on his blog, but it got rather long so I decided to post here instead.

Apparently Michael and his wife have been having some problems with their iPhones, through which he became aware of the ability to auto-restore a dead iPhone (or its replacement) to the last known good configuration. He writes:

The only saving grace of the whole experience was that after re-activating the phone with AT&T via iTunes, I got a very welcome message in iTunes, asking if I’d like to automatically restore my wife’s phone, with all her data and settings.

Apparently, unbeknown-st to me, iTunes had made a backup of her phone (and presumably mine), and was able to fully restore her new iPhone to be a familiar clone of the old one in about 20 minutes. Including the personal picture she was using as her start page “wall-paper”.

That helped restore my shaken faith a bit in Apple’s newest baby.

So, I guess the unlimited data plan conveniently masks the fact that Apple is uploading data from your phone to their servers, apparently without the knowledge or explicit consent of the user.

[Update: Having thought about this a bit more, it is possible (read: I hope) that the data sync is just occuring between the iPhone and the iTunes software on the user’s PC. That would mean of course that users who don’t sync their iPhone to iTunes regularly will not be able to take advantage of the restoration functionality. On balance, I’d greatly prefer this alternative scenario (with its attendant “inconveniences”, given the implications of the original hypothesis. The scenario below which is based on server-side backup is, for me, rather uncomfortable, even as a law abiding citizen with no major skeletons in my closet. In any case, I think Apple would be well advised to clarify how they are doing this, especially as their chosen carrier partner is at&t – recall the at&t/Narus/NSA case.]

Handy indeed for the times your iPhone breaks, or when you drop it in the toilet, or it gets stolen, but I have to wonder what people would say if the same kind of “convenience feature” was executed by a Microsoft (or even Google these days) without explicit user approval. (I’m assuming that no such approval exists (or is buried in the small print), I don’t have an iPhone and haven’t read through the ULAs or other legal documentation.)

I wonder how aggressive the data backup is. Michael says “all [the] data” was backed up. There are things like the address book, sent/received emails (esp. those sent via WiFi), browser bookmarks, browser history (again, especially usage via WiFi), browser cookies (ditto), calendar entries, notes, which they would not have access to by just monitoring the at&t network.

Given a phone is a personal device making the user that much more identifiable, the privacy issues are worth consideration, I think.

iPhone’s global expansion July 5, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Economy & Business, Internet, Japan.

The BBC reports that O2 is close to signing an exclusive deal for the iPhone rights in the UK. No news on whether it will be crappy GSM or 3G.

This is a change from earlier reports which suggested Vodafone was the front runner.

We shall see.

But if it does turn out that O2 does get the iPhone, that is sure to spark speculation as to the impact that has on the likely Japanese partner. All 3 major Japanese carriers have expressed interest. O2 is owned by Telefonica, which has strong ties to NTT DoCoMo. (O2 and Telefonica are part of the i-mode alliance)

But DoCoMo and Apple don’t feel like natural partners.

DoCoMo also has Napster under its wings, and I suspect that Apple will almost certainly insist that that has to go.

au(KDDI) also has its LISMO music service, which would also conflict with iTunes. I think KDDI has spent a lot more money promoting LISMO than DoCoMo has Napster.

In any case,will either be willing to cut loose the user base of its existing music services (for what they are worth)?

Softbank is leveraged to the hilt and whilst Son-san would no doubt like to partner with Apple, can they afford it if it became a bidding war against the big two? I’m sure the creditors won’t be too keen on taking that particular gamble. That said, Yahoo! Japan, which is part of the Softbank group, has a commercial tie-up with iTunes….

Here’s a totally crazy idea. What about emobile, the data only 3G carrier? Voice services using software VoIP. Apple would certainly have the upper hand in that relationship, and could have a go at running a mobile carrier through its partner. For one thing, it would have the only voice capable device on the network!

But then, the iPhone would probably look anorexic and grainy next to a 4.1″ 800×400 WVGA screen (Sharp EM ONE) which has a touchscreen (albeit not a multitouch one) AND a proper keyboard. Admittedly the Sharp is pretty heavy.

Even so, if I were Apple, I’d give the upstart some serious consideration. (I could also point them to a bargain solution to handle the voice infrastructure part, too. Although I do hear emobile are working on something themselves…)

From a purely technical perspective, it would seem from Apple’s tie-up with at&t that a 3G device if and when released would go down the UMTS route, pointing to DoCoMo/Softbank/emobile as more likely candidates than au(KDDI).

Of course, I’m one of the sceptics with regards to iPhone’s potential fortunes in Japan. Can (non-smartphone) users embrace the fact that the iPhone will need both hands to operate? I’m not so sure. Width apparently is a more important dimension than thickness for most Japanese. Length is apparently not an issue. Most collapse into a compact size when not in use. No sniggering at the back. We are talking phones.

The fact that the generic 10key is highly compatible with the Japanese alphabet means that semi-blind touch typing in Japanese is easy on a phone (many older people who have difficulty with a PC seem fine with using the phone interface, based on casual research observing people on the trains and elsewhere – using text messaging on the phone is certainly not limited to young people and businessmen here in Japan).

Without tactile feedback, that is going to be more difficult. (And I certainly don’t want to be on the same road as some idiot trying to type on an iPhone whilst driving. It is bad enough with a one-hand typist driver. Both are equally illegal, of course, but two hands on the iPhone means no hands on the wheel, which I suggest is a little more dangerous than just one hand on the wheel)

Also, the auto-correction and auto-completion techniques which are apparently well received in the US are not sufficient as is for the Japanese language. Predictive suggestions fill half the screen on my 3″ screen phone when I type a message, I can’t see how that will be compatible with typing on the same screen if I actually want to see some of the message I am composing. Well, actually, I can. It will work in the same way as pressing the space bar on a real keyboard with a Japanese IME installed, which calls up the list of choices. The virtual qwerty disappears and the list appears in its place. Once a choice is made, or the user hits a back key, the virtual keyboard will reappear. Anyway, I digress. The point is that I suspect there will be some additional challenges involved.

Of course, if Apple aren’t in a hurry to release an iPhone with a 3G chipset, the whole question is a non-starter.

[I guess there is another player on the scene, Willcom, the PHS network, if Apple really didn’t want any 3G phones which might be un-locked and exported…..]