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Another Sony battery recall, this time, Apple August 25, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, IT, Japan, technology.
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Another 1.8 million batteries to be recalled….
From Yahoo:

Apple’s recall covers 1.1 million rechargeable batteries in the 12-inch iBook G4, 12-inch PowerBook G4 and 15-inch PowerBook G4 laptops sold in the United States from October 2003 through August 2006. The recall also covers an additional 700,000 batteries in laptops sold abroad, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

A number of other manufacturers (Fujitsu, Lenovo, amongst others) have come out and said the Dell/Sony recall won’t affect them because of differences in the batteries and peripheral environment in which the batteries operate.

If the recall spreads and these manufacturers end up eating their words, it will be another PR disaster. We’ve seen so many cases of companies issuing statements before the results of a proper investigation has taken place.

Even if the manufacturers are not have direct control over manufacturing faults at the OEM level and are in some sense victims, if they handle the problem incorrectly, they become part of the problem. I must admit some of the other manufacturers were awfully quick to issue statements saying that they are unaffected. Did they do a thorough investigation? Time will tell.

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

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

A tale of two ostriches August 21, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, IT, technology.
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Alternatively known as the Dell/Sony battery fire fiasco.

Dell and Sony knew about and discussed manufacturing problems with Sony-made Lithium-Ion batteries as long as ten months ago, but held off on issuing a recall until those flaws were clearly linked to catastrophic failures causing those batteries to catch fire, a Sony Electronics spokesman said Friday.

From an Infoworld article, dated August 18th.

The two companies knew about and discussed the contamination problem, and the problem was rectified, but they didn’t recall batteries known to be suffering from contamination.

As a result of those conversations, Sony made changes to its manufacturing process to minimize the presence and size of the particles in its batteries. However, the company did not recall batteries that it thought might contain the particles because it wasn’t clear that they were dangerous

I’m sure consumers will be thrilled to buy from manufacturers who when aware of a problem, just cross their fingers and pray that problems won’t occur. That is such an effective and reassuring strategy. Especially when the results of a battery short circuit are not unforseeable.

What we need are batteries which are less susceptible to such catastrophic failures. Electrically rechargeable Zinc/Air battery anyone?

Bad news for flying PC users August 18, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, IT, technology.
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It is being reported that Boeing has announced it is getting out of the in-flight internet connectivity business.

Boeing blames poor adoption rates, and apparently a buyer could not be found for the business.

Airbus has an investment in a rival system, OnAir, but it seemed that Boeing was the leader in providing in-fllight broadband, and $30 per flight didn’t seem unreasonable.

Some of us do value the ability to be connected during a long intercontinental flight, it makes time on the plane more productive.

Of course, airlines might be thinking about banning laptops all together, what with terrorism and batteries exploding and all that.

40% of Japanese Junior High School students exchange emails with strangers August 16, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Japan, technology.
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This is rather disturbing.

The Asahi Shimbun reports (in Japanese) on research conducted by Professor Hirotsugu Shimoda at the Faculty of Social Information, Gunma University in conjunciton with the Mobile Society Reseach Institute (which is sponsored by NTT DoCoMo) into the email (via mobile phone) habits of Japanese teenagers. Virtually all Japanese phones have the ability to send proper email, not just SMS messages, so can also be used to communicate beyond the mobile phone networks (there are applications which allow this for overseas phones as well, but proper email functionality is standard on Japanese phones).

One of the major findings is that 43% of Junior High School children replied that they “often” or “sometimes” exchange emails with “meru-tomo” (which is a contraction of “me-ru tomodachi” which literally means “mail friend” and was defined for the purpose of this study as a friend you have never met but exchange emails with).

The survey was conducted in a total of 38 senior and junior high schools spread over 8 prefectures, a total of 4600 students. 34% of junior high school students and 97% of senior high school students responded that they had a mobile phone.

Of the students who have mobile phones, 25% of Junior High School students answered that they communicate with such strangers “often”, compared to only 8% of Senior High School students. About a third of students who communicate with “meru-tomo” replied that they have subsequently met these people they encountered on-line.

When asked about the ages of their “meru-tomo”, junior high school students responded (multiple response) Junior High School students 95%, Senior High School students 40%, others <10%. Perhaps these students are lulled into a false sense of security as they think their on-line friends are of similar age. But of course, it is so easy to lie about your age on-line. Paedophiles don’t usually go around advertising that they are middle aged men looking for some minors to groom and take advantage of.

More that 30% of junior high school students and 40% of senior high school students responded that they access sites which are people congregate to find “meru-tomo” or to discuss games and the like. Many minors are making on-line “friends” at these sites.

Whilst the mobile internet is (or, perhaps more appropriately, will be) seen in the US (for example) as an extension/off-shoot of the PC based internet, for many Japanese, the mobile internet was their first exposure to the internet, and many people use their phone more for email and web browsing than to make phone calls. I am certainly one of them.

Mobile phones are personal devices, and therein is the problem that partents and guardians face when attempting to shield their children from inappropriate content. A home PC based environment can be equipped with filtering software and logging software (if the parents knew more about their computers than their kids – not a given, of course), mobile phone carriers really do need to start giving serious thought to developing network services which address these issues.

NTT DoCoMo has one “Kids’ Keitai” in its line up, which has a integrated panic alarm, GPS (to track the whereabouts of your child) things like parental locks to prevent kids changing settings (including switching the thing off).

Realistically though, this phone is aimed at smaller children, and high school students will not want to carry around a phone that looks like a children’s toy.

More importantly I think is to provide network services which allow parents to prevent their children from accessing sites which are potentially harmful, or provide an access log to allow parents to see what their child is doing with their phone. Of course, children should have a right to a certain amount of privacy, and ideally parents will have taught their children not to engage strangers, or even dabble in “enjyo-kosai” (“assisted relationships” which is a roundabout way of saying casual prostitution), but unfortunately many teenagers are still extremely vulnerable to peer pressure and grooming by deviant adults however hard parents try to keep their children on the straight and narrow (and even more unfortunately, there are plenty of parents who neglect even that basic parenting role), and technology probably can play a useful role in preventing children getting into trouble.

[added 8/21. Kent Newsome has a post wherein he worries about when his kids will get hold of a mobile phone (ie how early is too early – I see little kids, definitely no more than 7 or 8, with phones here in Tokyo, but then in most cities you don’t see 7 year olds commuting to school on the train without accompaniment), and also ponders how technology might at the same time help him keep track of his kids. The features that he wishes for are already available in Japan, per the post above. The question is when other overseas carriers will implement similar services…]

Rube Goldberg Machines August 15, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in general, technology.
2 comments

I do not condone copyright infringement, and that is a big problem I have with the likes of YouTube, who to gain critical mass inevitably have to turn a blind eye to infringement. Of course it would be less of a problem if traditional media outlets got with the programme and understood (or at least experimented in order to try to understand) how to leverage microchunking and distribution of content in a way that reflects positively on their bottom line.

But for an engineering type like me (a kind way of saying techie nerd), the clip below is just irresistable, and I have to spread my enthusiasm. The linked clip is of a compilation of various Rube Goldberg machines which were created by Keio University professor Masahiko Sato, who is a famous advertising movie planner/director and also happens to be the creator of the brilliant game I.Q.(and its sequels). He created the machines as part of his involvement with NHK Education channel’s Pythagoraswitch, a children’s education programme.

Of course, the ultimate in Rube Goldberg machines must be the one featured in the award winning ad for Honda, called “Cog“, a two minute long, single shot effort, which took over 600 takes to get perfectly right.

Human powered search August 15, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, IT, Japanese, TechCrunch, technology.
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Techcrunch had an article about question and answer services yesterday. (the article was actually about the Israeli service called Yedda)

In the article, it lists other players in the same sector like Yahoo Answers, Wondir, Google Answers and Oyogi. Which is all well and good, I’m sure Techcrunch readers are always keen on hearing about the latest products and ideas.

However.

Given that they have a “Japanese Editorial Team” and publish the content in Japanese (the article above is available in Japanese here), I wonder if they can’t start actually editing the article at least in the Japanese version to reflect the fact that there are domestic human powered search services in Japan too. Actually, I think overseas readers (and entrepreneurs) would be very interested to see what goes on here.
Indeed, there is a company which has had an IPO on the back of their human powered search service (and its expansion into servicing FAQ type pages for corporate clients, which is along the same technical lines). The company is called OKWave and IPO’d in June of this year (admittedly on the relatively minor Nagoya Stock Exchange’s Centrex emerging markets exchange), and is currently valued at a little over JPY8Billion. It’s done more than 9.5 million Q&As and has more than half a million registered users. Just in Japanese. OK, so listing requirements are less strict here compared to NASDAQ, but if you want to see some non-Google/MSFT/Yahoo/Amazon/Ebay/Fox exit models for “Web 2.0” businesses (or even more mundane internet businesses like advertising, SEO, or on-line vertical B2B marketplaces – all of which have seen IPOs in the current year. And we have the SNS IPO coming next month), Japan is not a bad place to start.

Then there is hatena, another interesting company which offers very “Web2.0”-y applications including human powered search, a social bookmarking service, blog hosting and much more besides (they have a portfolio of 13 different web based services, and the company has less than two dozen employees – this company is about as close to the SV IT startup model as you might find in Japan). They even set up an office in SV last month (press release) which I think was an excuse for the CEO to see how things work on the ground across the pond. 🙂

Yahoo! Japan also has a Q&A service, but that is lagging behind with less than 90,000 queries posted.

Going back to my bitching about lack of exposure of Japanese businesses (short of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Sony, Matsushita, Canon, Sharp and the rest of the multi-billion dollar set), Business 2.0 had a piece about global Web2.0 sites. The number of Japanese Web2.0 sites profiled? Zero.

Of course, part of the problem is that most Japanese services are just in Japanese. Yes, it is in no small part due to the language barrier as well. I’d also say that many of the entrepreneurs are less marketing and promotion savvy here, compared to the US. We aren’t doing a good enough job of telling the world what our small innovative companies are up to.

I would plead guilty as charged on that count, I am pretty conservative about profiling Japanese companies, especially in the internet sector, mainly because they are all too often rip-offs of US/overseas ideas. However, if they can take a clone and make a business out of it, they deserve credit, IMO. Of course, if an overseas business can ramp quickly and internationalize and localize with sufficient speed, and take advantage of network scaling effects, clones should no chance. But the reality is that different markets sometimes have differing needs, and building a truely universal product is often an elusive task.

Dell’s battery problem and Sony August 15, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, electronics, IT, Japan, technology, Uncategorized.
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With stories of Dell laptops doing a good impression of spontaneous combustion making the rounds, it was probably just a matter of time before a major recall was announced.

And here it is. A staggering 4.1Million machines are affected. The company responsible for creating the exploding batteries is the firm everybody loves to pick on these days, Sony.

I wonder what kind of hit Sony will take from this incident. I suspect Dell will be expecting Sony to foot a significant portion of the bill, as Sony has said that a manufacturing fault has been identified with the batteries it supplied. At $60-180 a pop, that’s $400million at retail prices (so probably a direct hit of at least $100million or so). Add the costs of advertising the recall, the logistics costs, and paying PR guys to manage this latest PR disaster, it all adds up. Not to mention the lost sales, for both Dell and Sony. Is this good news for alternative battery suppliers? Dell may be looking for some new suppliers….

Where is the consumer electronics engineering company we used to love, Mr Stringer? Of course, it isn’t Howard’s fault, he isn’t an engineer by any stretch of the imagination, and Sony’s problems started well before his time. Probably about the time when the founding members started being replaced by the 2nd generation. We all know the problems that family run businesses face when the founder passes the baton to his son, I don’t think the situation here is much different, unfortunately. It probably wasn’t helped by the shift from guys who understood engineering to marketing men in top management. There are a lot of middle aged ex-Sony guys who have left and are doing other things. Many of the ones I have met come across as people with a real love and passion for engineering. Which is why they probably left, disillusioned.

In cooperation with the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other regulatory agencies worldwide, Dell is today announcing the voluntary recall of approximately 4.1 million Dell-branded lithium-ion batteries with cells manufactured by Sony. Under rare conditions, it is possible for these batteries to overheat, which could cause a risk of fire.

The recalled batteries were sold with the following Dell notebook computers: Dell LatitudeTM D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800, D810; InspironTM 6000, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 500m, 510m, 600m, 6400, E1505, 700m, 710m, 9400, E1705; and Dell PrecisionTM M20, M60, M70 and M90 mobile workstations; and XPSTM , XPS Gen2, XPS M170 and XPS M1710. The batteries were also sold separately, including in response to service calls. “Dell” and one of the following are printed on the batteries: “Made in Japan” or “Made in China” or “Battery Cell Made in Japan Assembled in China.” The identification number for each battery appears on a white sticker. Customers should have this number available when they contact Dell to determine if their battery is part of the recall.

 

[Update]

It looks like this fiasco is going to cost Sony in the region of $300M, and authorities have stated that they will be checking the safety of all Sony Li-ion batteries, which have been supplied to other computer manufacturers. Li-ion batteries are used elsewhere too, Cameras, mobile phones, etc etc. Sony was the first manufacturer to commercialise the Li-ion in bulk, back in about 1990, and Li-ion technology (and battery technology in general) is a cash cow for Japanese manufacturers who own a huge chunk of the market. Sony, Sanyo, Matsushita are probably the big 3. However overseas manufacturers from S. Korea, Taiwan and increasingly China have been looking enviously at the stranglehold the Japanese have had on the market. They will see this as a chance to take market share.

 

 

This seems to be just the latest in an increasingly long line of incidents which are tarnishing the reputation of Japanese manufacturing’s legendary ability to turn out highest quality products. Given that Japan has lower cost competition snapping at its heals, it really needs to get its act together and maintain class leading levels of quality and reliability as well as adoption of new technology and product innovation to stand a chance. However, with the likes of Sony and Toyota fumbling about with massive recall programmes, one must wonder if we are seeing cracks appear.

 

For business travellers like myself, this type of incident makes us worry that the FAA is going to ban laptop PCs from cabin baggage, as they have seen how much energy a modern laptop battery contains, and with the reports of terrorists planning to use batteries to trigger explosions, the opportunity is there to make air travel that little bit more inconvenient. For a 12 hour intercontinental flight, not being able to work on board can be a big inconvenience. And seeing how baggage handlers throw around our checked-in luggage, I certainly wouldn’t trust them with my laptop.

 

Pioneer to ally with Matsushita on PDP technology? June 28, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, electronics, Japan, technology.
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This news is a little bit old, having made the newspapers in early June. Article from the Asahi Shimbun here (Japanese).
Pioneer, the struggling consumer electronics firm is rumoured to be considering an alliance with Matsushita.

Pioneer was a pioneer in the PDP business (pardon the pun). However as a relatively small player, it has been struggling, although its technology is well regarded. Its strengths are in the high end market, which is beyond the reach of most consumers. The rumoured deal might see Pioneer supply high end panels (full HD, large size panels) to Matsushita, whilst Matsushita would supply lower end PDP modules to Pioneer, which would allow Pioneer to beef up its product range, especially in the volume sector. (There might also be Pioneer branded LCD panels from the Matsushita/Hitachi factory, although one has to wonder whether the Pioneer brand would be competitive in the LCD market as a late entrant with an OEM supplied, badge engineered product)

Is this really the best way forward for Pioneer? It has been struggling and has announced that it will no longer be developing its own DVD recorder related microprocessors and software, rather it will be sourcing from Matsushita going forward. Pioneer was a pioneer in the DVD-R market as well…..

The PDP and DVD-R stories illustrate the fact that Pioneer have the technological capacity and market reading foresight. However it would appear they cannot sustain their initial lead, and get overtaken by a bunch of fast followers, Matsushita being a great example of a leading player of this strategy. (Which is why techie types tend to turn their noses up at Matsushita. A bit like they do at Toyota (which, to be fair, is trying to lead things (sucessfully so far, it would seem) in the hybrid sector)

It’s not like Matsushita isn’t working on high end PDP either. They have been exhibiting the world’s largest 103″ PDP every opportunity they get. Will the internal political machine be willing to overcome the dreaded NIH syndrome, and work with Pioneer at the higher end of the market?

Pioneer is doing brisk business elsewhere, notably in the car audio and navigation markets, where it is a market leader.

My personal opinion is that Pioneer would be better off remaining independent, and not get too draw into any relationship with a much bigger partner. I actually think this company would be an interesting proposition for a private equity play.

Place shifting TV hots up in Japan June 24, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, IT, Japan, Shopping, technology.
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Sling Media goes on sale in Japan on July 8th.

It will compete against Sony's Location Free, which is being pushed quite aggressively in Japanese electronics stores of late.

Itochu (an investor in Sling Media) will be importing the devices, and IO Data will be the distributor.