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Mobile phone meets Nintendo DS January 24, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, IT, Japan, Mobile.
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As part of the NTT DoCoMo Spring 2007 line-up (sounds like the fashion industry… and in a way, it is), Mitsubishi Electric announced the D800iDS, a two screen clamshell, the lower screen being a touch panel.

Apparently DS stands for “Direct & Smooth”. Conveniently it sounds exactly like this. (DS apparently stands for “dual screen” in Nintendo parlance)

Anyway, the D800iDS is out in February. It is pretty light on features, no integrated FeliCa for credit/debit/e-cash in your mobile phone (must admit I’ve never gotten round to using that feature yet), only a 1.3M pixel camera, no push-to-talk, no GPS, no global roaming, no music player, etc.

The touch screen does offer some potential benefits. The 2.2-inch touchscreen allows handwriting entry as well as traditional text entry via the (now virtual) keypad, and another entry method which takes advantage of a virtual keyboard to allow every Japanese hiragana character to be entered using 2 taps. (Yes, some phones do still offer an option of 2 tap entry on a normal physical keyboard, but most of us have probably forgotten the vaguely cryptic codes we used to type at ease when pagers were all the rage. )

[Historical note – pagers were really big in Japan in the pre-mobile phone era, and virtually all of my high school and university friends had one. Looking back, it is interesting to note that the mobile phone market lagged the European (or at least the UK) market in those early days. I had a cellphone in London before most of my Tokyo based friends got around to getting a mobile phone. Just look how the tables have turned (for the most part) now. I know the US press just loves to point to Europe when it wants to remind readers that it lags in mobile and broadband services, but if they did their homework they’d find East Asia is where it’s at. I guess language is a barrier….]

Anyway, this is where it gets interesting. (Yes, long preamble, blah blah blah, if you’re reading this you already know how tediously verbose I am in writing – compare and contrast to the shy retiring wallflower that I am in person)

Mitsubishi have announced a contest for iAppli (DoCoMo’s J2ME “application sandbox” thingy – ok sandbox maybe rather harsh) developers, to develop something interesting using D800iDS’s dual screen/touchscreen interface.

This certainly seems much more inclusive than the policy taken by Apple recently.

(OK, you give Mitsubishi and DoCoMo distribution rights of the submitted project as well as the right to use it in promotions, but you retain all other intellectual property rights which sounds pretty fair)

Applications close on Feb 7th, by which proposals need to be submitted using this form. People who qualify will be notified on Feb 9th, and will have until March 12th to complete development. You need to have a DoCoMo FOMA account so you can install your SIM card in the DS to test your DS iAppli with. (They’ll give you (to keep) a D800iDS if you get past the first paper exam hurdle.

Prizes on offer: 37V LCD TV for 1st prize (not full HD though, as Mitsubishi haven’t got any in the lineup which must be hurting sales and margins), 3 runners-up prizes are HDD/DVD DVRs, and some DoCoMo credits for worthy mentions.


Mixi releases Mixi Mobile statistics January 18, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Japan, Mobile.

Mixi, Japan’s largest SNS, has released statistics relating to Mixi Mobile, the mobile interface to Mixi. Mixi upgraded Mixi mobile to offer virtually identical functionality to the PC interface last December.
Mixi sent out a press release saying that on January 15th, the mobile site reached 100 million pageviews/day. There are 2.3million unique users (as of December) accessing Mixi Mobile users, out of a Mixi user base of 6.6Million (this number is of November 2006), and new registrations via Mixi Mobile are coming in at 12,000 registrations/day.

They released some interesting demographics data in the PR.

Male/Female Ratio 43.7%/56.3%

Age of users:

~19               15.2%

20~29          65.2%

30~39         16.3%

40~49         2.8%

50~59        0.4%

Over 60      0.1%

Assuming the ages are accurate (which not a given, not by a long shot…..) No surprise that people in their twenties account for the bulk of users.  The fact that teenagers comprise 15.2% indicates that user adoption is as high for 18 and 19 year olds as for people in their twenties, or people are saying they are 18 or 19 when they are not. There used to be lots of profiles of under 18s on the site, Mixi seems to have clamped down on that to some extent, but there are still users who say they are under 18 in their profiles (although they give their age as 18 in the age field). I suspect there are still a substantial number of under 18s on the site. (as well as older people who are parading as teenagers – as with any SNS, Mixi does have people looking for “relationships” – as well as scam artists and the like)

Current residence of Mixi Mobile users by region:

Hokkaido    3.4%

Tohoku       3.5%

Kanto         50.0%
Shinetsu    1.7%
Hokuriku   1.4%

Tokai         8.8%

Kinki         17.8%

Chugoku   3.6%

Shikoku    1.6%

Kyushu     7.3%

Okinawa   0.7%

That leaves 1% who apparently don’t live in Japan. The PR doesn’t say if the regional data is obtained from the Mixi user profiles, or from mobile carrier data.

On CES 2007 January 12, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, IT, Mobile.

Seeing I wasn’t in Las Vegas for CES this year (I promised myself I will make the trip next year), CES attendance was remotely via internet media coverage.

Whilst that meant I didn’t get to see much of the really interesting stuff going on at the grass roots level, most of the eye candy got sufficient coverage so I could get my tech geek fix.

1) On Apple’s cellphone

Yes, it looks nice. Real nice.

But GSM? Multi-year exclusive contract with Cingular? Not coming to Asia until 2008?

Again, Apple shows it can do the slick consumer product and presentation, but it is very old school when it comes to its business strategy. It seems it is another walled garden approach. I suspect the thing won’t even be a real “smartphone”, and will limit third party development to the sandbox of widgets and/or J2ME applets, not nearly the same kind of freedom as made available on real smartphone devices. I guess the thing is targetted not at business users but at Apple fans.

Anyway, technologically, there is really nothing new here. It shows again that UI is what really defines Apple. Full points there, at least as far as the screen GUI is concerned.

However. It doesn’t appear that a tactile feedback mechanism is incorporated into the screen, which will probably slow things down. Audible feedback? Not an option, if one expects to use one in public. I will grab any “iPhone” whose user dares to use one in my vicinity with some lame beeping audible feedback mechanism engaged, and throw it on the ground and stamp on it until the screen breaks. I’d do the same for any user who has a similarly annoying beep beep emanating from their conventional phone. I guess they could keep their headphones on at all times… In any case I just can’t see how the touchscreen can be made as easy to use to type text as even a physical tenkey (which permits blind touch typing) let alone a physical QWERTY thumb keyboard.

Apple going ahead with using “iPhone” although they knew Cisco owned and markets a telephony device of that name? Shows balls, but I have one word for Apple. Hypocrites. They get the lawyers go after anyone within a country mile of any of their trademarks, and then they pull this. Perhaps they think that the voice of their adoring fans will sway the courts. Think again. Cisco isn’t about to be bullied into submission. Cisco is twice as big as Apple.

Steve Jobs saying that phone calls are mobile’s killer app? Wrong answer. ESPECIALLY for the users right bang in the middle of the user profile for the “iPhone”. I’m sure the cool and trendy teenagers and twentysomethings will get annoyed when they realise that it is much more difficult to type their SMS messages and email. I didn’t see much typing being demonstrated at the demo….. I wonder why…..

Wi-Fi is nice, but don’t expect it to be nearly as ubiquitous as cellphone coverage, so data browsing is going to be a nightmare even on EDGE. So much is made of the ability to access the web. I’m not convinced that zooming and moving around sections of a PC format webpage is anywhere near optimal. We have full PC webpage browsing on mobile phones here (with similar zooming and scanning capability), and I (nor hardly any of my acquaintances) hardly ever use it (even with the high resolution screen on the phone). When it comes down to it, content is about substance, not presentation, especially when you are on the move. Do you think you can read a webpage whilst walking with an “iPhone” more easily than with, say, an optimised cHTML page on i-mode? I doubt it. I think it is unavoidable that for user friendly browsing experience on the move, you’ll need to format customised pages for the phone. Despite the protests of graphic designers, the prettiness of a page (ie the use of rounded corners or pastels or overelaborate use of graphics) does not add informational value. Both service providers and users need to get over their stubborn insistence that the mobile web should be similar to the PC web. The reason the Japanese mobile web community has been thriving is fundamentally intertwined with the fact that no such false expectation existed.

2) What is it with those squat cylinders?

Is that like the new “in” look? Both Microsoft and Sony (VAIO VGX-TP1) had them on show. I guess they had to compete with Apple without ripping off the square with rounded corners look. The circle is the new square?

3) TVs

I wonder how much electricity Sharp’s 108V LCD consumes (and how much it costs). My guess? It is more expensive than Panasonic’s 103V PDP to buy, but runs on maybe 20-30% less electricity. Which would still mean drawing more than a kiloWatt of power, which is not very green at all. I wonder how they managed the backlighting of such a wide panel. I guess edge lighting with CCFLs around the perimeter just won’t hack it at those dimensions. So, that would mean either a wasteful CCFL array on the back plane, or a similarly positioned LED array. Former would mean increased energy consumption, latter, increased cost.

Bring on the next generation of RPTVs. Expect to see a 60 inch RPTV (with a depth of between 4 and 6 inches) at around the $2000 price point in about a year, with electricity consumption slashed to a third of that found in similarly sized FPDs based on competing technology.

4) Audio

Really not much to really get me excited here, lots of wireless networking on show, with “digital active” loudspeakers. Colour me sceptical. A vibrating box isn’t the best place to put sensitive electronics, and you still need to shell out for mains cabling, so it isn’t truly wireless in any case. It is OK for run of the mill stuff, but at the high end? Not convinced. I’m still looking to upgrade my CD front end, the search continues. Toying with the idea of a PC based system as discussed previously. (got a new cartridge for my record player last summer – but that is in storage because of the move)

On Mobile RSS December 21, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Mobile.

Aplix Corporation and Sweet Inc have announced a partnership to develop a mobile RSS solution. Aplix licenses its JBlend J2ME platform to handset manufacturers (amongst others) and JBlend powers many of the phones sold for all of the networks in Japan (and they have an increasing presence overseas as well). Sweet is the subsidiary of Japanese mobile internet development/production company, Yumemi.

Aplix is developing extensions to JBlend (corresponding APIs) to handle mobile RSS applications and, and Sweet will be developing applications for mobile handsets which will use RSS.

Sweet already has a couple of carriers supporting the RSS reader applications created by them (NTT DoCoMo and Willcom).

The new partnership seeks to explore ways to make mobile RSS usage easier, currently the specifications surrounding Java applets on some phones (defined by the carriers) apparently limit the usability of RSS readers.

Some random thoughts around this issue follows….

Thinking about how mobile RSS will be used, I can’t help but think that a dedicated mobile specific RSS solution isn’t the goal. Even with a good mobile RSS reader, RSS feed management is likely to be a nightmare if you have hundreds or thousands of feeds. I certainly don’t want to go through resubscribing to feeds on my phone. My ideal solution is for a mobile interface which is synchronised with my PC RSS reader. Whilst web-based RSS readers are useable, I personally currently prefer a desktop reader, but it would be nice to have a solution which syncs to a web-based reader which also provides similar connectivity from a mobile device. For mobile devices, it seems some form of smart feed aggregation and distribution is even more compelling than for desktop use. By supplying the aggregation component, the problem of only being able to access one server per Java application (as is the case for certain carrier specs at the moment) is neatly circumvented. Being able to specify (or perhaps even better, for the server-side logic to work out what I want to read – based on user behaviour feedback) which feeds I want access to from my phone would be nice.  By integrating the mobile app with the PC web-based and desktop apps, it would make feed management a lot easier especially for heavy users who are likely to use a desktop PC as well as their phones to access the internet.

Thinking further along those lines, it would be handy to have email access which is similarly device independent…..

Paying for MySpace on mobile? December 19, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Japan, Mobile.

You gotta be kidding me.

MySpace & Cingular in new deal 

Mixi and Gree have virtually full functionality from any phone, on any network, without charge (OK, Mixi opened up messaging on phones just recently, but the other features were already available).

MySpace Japan isn’t going to be competitive without a free mobile offering…..

Another indication that both internet and mobile telco companies in the US don’t get it.

The walled garden subscription approach isn’t going to work. The mobile experience is inferior to the PC experience for sites like MySpace. Yet they charge for mobile and give access free to PC users…. OK…..

US (and Euro) mobile telcos and their partners have been poisoning the mobile internet experience for users. Talk about greedy bastards shooting themselves in the foot.

Remember, they can continue to make money on the data charges even if they open it up. They can even offer a two tier approach like the carriers in Japan. Everyone needs to realise that the mobile web will not be identical to the PC web. The message is certainly being understood here in Japan.

au My Page – Mobile personalized homepages and data storage in the sky for the masses is already here December 19, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Internet, Japan, Mobile.
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Not being an au/KDDI subscriber, I haven’t had the opportunity to try this, but My Page is a new (free) service launched by the #2 Japanese mobile telco which provides homepage personalisation, on-line data storage (photos and mail) and with both PC/mobile access. No syncing is currently provided, but they give you a full 100Mb of storage, which is probably plenty for most users. Basically, 20million+ users have the capability to access these services already. (depending on the phone you have, the range of functionality which can be used will vary)

My Page also provides some tools like calendar, photo album, blog, SNS, local search, all accessible from both mobile and PC. Search is provided by Google, of course.

DoCoMo has offered a similar service (but with SyncML based syncing of data between handset and server), but it costs (albeit just 100 yen a month) and only provides 4Mb storage. Because this is an extra service, I strongly suspect that user numbers are way lower than on au.

With the vast majority of phones having closed operating systems and with the carriers controlling the handset feature set, one might suspect that this would lead to a stifling of innovation. However, this market shows emphatically that this is not necessarily the case.

It is fine for independent software companies to produce mobile apps (and good luck to them), but for the average user, having to download applications is a turn-off and this leads to a substantial adoption barrier (bar the tech-savvy early adopter crowd).

The evolution of the mobile internet market in Japan is obviously different from that of the US (and virtually every other geography where internet connectivity is mainstream). The Japanese mobile internet market (and without a strict walled garden approach, I think the use of the term “internet” is appropriate here) evolved nearly concurrently with mainstream internet adoption on the PC platform.

Indeed, many users had their first taste of the internet on their phones, using i-mode or ezweb or JSky (as it was then, back in the J-Phone days). Japanese mobile users have had internet email access as default for years. No-one thinks twice about sending email from/to a PC from a phone, or vice-versa.

Whereas in the US (and elsewhere), the PC internet came first, and wireless is still barely there. It seems that the US mobile model can’t shake loose the memory of the way things unfolded on the PC. And why are we still stuck with SMS (I say this as a UK mobile phone user)???

In a comparison between the “closed” Japanese model, and the “open” US/European model, from a functionality perspective (and prices aren’t outrageous either), the Japanese model seems to have delivered more to users, faster, more efficiently (and created more successful mobile internet companies and IPOs).

And I put this down to the fact that the Japanese market did not yet have a “successful” PC model to copy, and the fact that the mobile telcos were more aware of their strong position and were able to position themselves at the center of the value chain, holding all the cards.

Also perhaps to the fact that users were perhaps more comfortable with the idea of a handset being an integrated unit (hardware, OS, applications, connectivity) rather than having an implicit expectation of being able to add applications as one would expect in the PC paradigm.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that, whilst I extend my best wishes for the dozens of ventures who are building mobile apps, I’d like to see a single example of a standalone application model which has worked in the mobile arena. And by worked, I mean penetration of the mass market, not a few thousand technophile early adopters.
For without a doubt, the mobile internet model is already a resounding success in Japan (many users use their phones to access data than to make phone calls), and stuff like mobile advertising (which relies on a mobile internet content ecosystem to get off the ground) is really old news.

I can see that mobile telcos elsewhere appear to be less than enthusiastic about opening up their systems (even with an open content approach, the telcos would still make good money on communication charges), but seeing how people like DoCoMo and au(KDDI) seem to be doing fine, isn’t it about time that all players involved in the mobile game wake up and think about what is best for the consumers? If it means a shift in power balance, so be it – although looking at the strategies of the mobile telcos elsewhere, there are companies who really need to get with the programme and stop thinking like legacy telcos and approach mobile differently.

It is clear that compared to the US and Europe, mobile users in Japan are clear winners – and mobile businesses and investors haven’t done badly either.

Motorola Razr on NTT DoCoMo December 12, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, Japan, Mobile.

Going on sale on thursday (December 14th) is the DoCoMo version of the Motorola RAZR, designated M702iS in DoCoMo-speak. Available in “Hot Pink”, as well as black and silver. It isn’t as slim as the Softbank XS707SC which went on sale last week (which is just 11.9mm thick), but it is the slimmest DoCoMo phone at 14.9mm thick.

People who are familiar with DoCoMo model numbers will see the phone is part of the lower end 70x series, which means it lacks a high res digital camera (only 1.3 Megapixels) and embedded FeLiCa (for contactless payments via Edy, Suica, iD, etc) which are available on 90x series phones. The DoCoMo-RAZR is however the only 70x series phone which will allow global roaming, at least in areas with a W-CDMA network.

Another Li-ion battery fiasco December 8, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, Japan, Mobile.
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Sanyo Electric, which has a massive 90% share of the Japanese domestic mobile phone battery market (and 40% global market share), is the company at the center of another Li-ion battery fiasco.

Sanyo was aware of at least 11 reports of batteries overheating by May of this year, but neither Sanyo, Mitsubishi Electric (whose phones used the Sanyo manufactured D06 battery) or NTT DoCoMo (which sold the Mitsubishi Electric produced D902i/D902iS/D903 which used the battery) announced a recall until yesterday. The recall was triggered by a case where a user suffered burns due to a faulty battery last month. There have apparently been at least 17 cases of serious overheating (including one case of the battery exploding).

The battery business is one of Sanyo’s key business lines, and was expected to be a core business as Sanyo restructures and sheds loss making business units. Sanyo had brought in an external CEO to rebuild the business and the restructuring has not been going very well. This incident may trigger wider repercussions within Sanyo.

This will come as a blow to DoCoMo as well, they are struggling with users switching to rival au(KDDI) since mobile number portability was introduced back in October.

Keeping the problem quiet for 6 months is not acceptable when consumer safety is at stake. In any case, the recall which affects 1.3 million units will cost up to $50M. The companies are saying that other battery models are unaffected. If it turns out this claim is later withdrawn, heads should roll.

MySpace Japan launch imminent November 6, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, IT, Japan, Mobile.

The Nikkei had an article saying that Newscorp and Softbank are due to announce the official launch of MySpace in Japan as early as this week. (the Japanese version has been in beta for a while now)
Apparently Rupert Murdoch is in Tokyo at the moment, in talks with Son-san.

The Softbank/MySpace initiative has been rumoured for months.

Is it a coincidence that the news was “leaked” to the press (Softbank is saying “no comment” to press inquiries for additional info) just as Softbank was in dire need of a diversionary topic to deflect criticism for Softbank Mobile’s handling of the start of MNP (mobile number portability) in Japan? Probably not, I would actually guess that Softbank assumed that the aggressive pricing strategy and its sudden announcement would have attracted positive media attention, and the MySpace announcement was supposed to be another initiative which showed that Softbank was on a roll.

Unfortunately, Softbank lost customers to its competitors as MNP kicked in.

Nonetheless, MySpace is going to be a big threat to Mixi and Gree (the two leading local SNS players), Mixi stock took a tumble today as the MySpace story hit the newspapers. Similar to Gree teaming up with KDDI (the carrier behind #2 mobile brand au – the new SNS launches this month, and all au users can join – previously it was an invitation only SNS), it is entirely conceivable that MySpace will be aggressively “mobilised” in the same way that Softbank has promoted Yahoo! Japan’s integration into Softbank Mobile’s handsets. MySpace Japan is slated for a PC only launch apparently though, which doesn’t make much sense.

It would seem that Yahoo! Japan’s attempt at a SNS  (Yahoo! Days) is going the way of the dodo imminently. Yahoo! Days has been a failure thus far, and I’m wondering when they’ll pull the plug….

Mobile Phone 3.5G battle lines are drawn August 23, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, IT, Japan, Mobile, technology.

KDDI, the carrier behind the Japanese #2 mobile phone network AU, has announced its 3.5G strategy.

It announced its upgrade to its existing CDMA2000 1x EV-DO Rev.0 infrastructure, services using the new infrastructure start in December 2006 in major metropolitan areas. The new system is called CDMA2000 1x EV-DO Rev.A. That’s a bit of a mouthful, and nil points for creativity or originality.

The highlights are:

a) An increase in speed, notably in uplink speed. Downlink was already at a maximum of 2.4Mbps, and that is improved to 3.1Mbps, but the real story is that the uplink goes from 144k to 1.8Mbps.

b) QoS technology has been built in, allowing a superior service for quality critical applications. KDDI will be implementing a VoIP videophone service using this QoS functionality. It will no doubt have other uses, potential uses that spring to mind are differentiating their media content services such as VoD and music streaming services from non-affiliated services offering the same. This does potentially raise some network neutrality issues, but that whole debate seems rather subdued here in Japan anyway.

c) BCMCS, a multicast system (requires compatible handsets) which will allow more efficient distribution of mass distribution content over IP. This could also be a big deal for content distribution over mobile IP.
NTT DoCoMo has already announced its plans for HSDPA on its FOMA W-CDMA network which kicks in this autumn, for which it promotes a 3.6Mbps downlink speed (uplink is a paltry 384kbps)

Personally, I think KDDI’s strategy of increasing uplink makes a huge amount of sense. Mobile phones as ubiquitously portable devices to enable mobile blogging (mobile photo blogging, with integrated megapixel cameras of course), video blogging (the cameras do a decent enough job of pretending it is a videocamera), even using the phone to record podcasts….. All of these functionalities will be greatly enhanced by the leap in speed.

As far as the technological battle goes, chalk one up for KDDI.