For years, Japan has boasted the best in mobile phones. They had the first widely used color handsets, the first widely used camera phones. And Japanese people were the first to train their thumbs to send Internet email, looking at cartoons and having their fortunes told with their phones.
The rest of the world is finally catching up. Mobile messaging is already hugely popular in Europe, and within a number of months users there should be able to email pictures from their phones. Both Nokia and Sony/Ericsson have released camera phones for Europe and America. Innovative wireless web applications are no longer primarily Japanese either; as Europe and the Scandinavian countries in particular have pioneered innovative location-based and wireless web applications.
Now much of the world is beginning to roll out 3G services - broadband, higher-speed mobile phone networks. Here Japan holds on to its increasingly thin lead in the worldwide development of mobile phone culture - they've had access to these broadband 3G networks the longest. So if Japan might be the future for all of our phones, what do they have to show for it?
FOMA at the Mouth
NTT DoCoMo drove the early mobile phone industry in Japan. Their genius lay in large part with their "i-mode" service; they created an unusually accessible user experience, encouraging plenty of mobile Internet content for ordinary consumers by making incentives content providers. Their low prices, broad network of contents and careful attention to the users created a truly mass market in Japan. This mass was lead by the world's true early adapters - young people. As Howard Rheingold writes in his book SmartMobs: "It is commonly accepted among i-mode watchers that widespread youth adoption accelerated the spread of mobile Internet services throughout Japanese society - by Spring 2001, 90% of Tokyo-area high school students possessed a mobile telephone."
Launched in the fall of 2001, FOMA was a bold bid by Japan's leading mobile service provider to stay current by placing itself firmly in the future. NTT DoCoMo's "FOMA" or Freedom Of Mobile multimedia Access was the world's first 3G mobile phone service. The business and technology press followed the launch of 3G closely. Here was Dick Tracy it seemed - DoCoMo's shiny blue phones finally promised phone-to-phone video conferencing!
In October 2001, I visited the expansive, sleek lobby of DoCoMo in central Tokyo. The elevators were bigger than my cramped Tokyo studio apartment. Everywhere was glass and marble. The 27th floor lobby overlooking the Imperial Palace boasted a waiting area large to accommodate all the dreamers hoping to bang their drum in the world's most celebrated mobile entertainment parade.
A sleek young man from the International PR section, Takumi Suzuki met me and ushered me into a small meeting room. There he pulled out two Panasonic 2101V phones with built-in video cameras. These had just been released two days before; they were worth over $500/500 Euros each. He dialed from one to the other; suddenly, swiftly I was looking at a video of him on my screen, and a smaller video mirror of myself in the corner.
He left me alone in the room to give a virtual tour of the DoCoMo office. He moved around with his roving phone-cum-video camera, showing off the lobby, pausing by the window to turn his eye towards Tokyo. It was definitely a moving picture, mostly fuzzy, short on details but long on gee-whiz. Between his insecure English in the headset and jerky images of his black spiky hair I saw pixilated on the screen, I felt a definite tingle - I was holding something extremely fun. Later, reunited, I told him as much: "teenagers are going to love this."
"Ahhh," Suzuki paused, his fingers spread, resting on the DoCoMo English-language FOMA press kit on the table between us, "We see a big corporate use." I tilted my head and waited for an explanation; he continued, "If you are in the headquarters and I am in the office, you can call to see what is going on - it's good for the bosses to get an overview."
As attractive as this may sound, it hasn't sold a lot of FOMA phones. An engineer with the American software maker Macromedia, Michael Barbarelli has been living in Tokyo for some months: "I've been wandering about town with a FOMA P210V for the past few months, hoping that the 'latest and greatest' would somehow make me look cool. In the past three months, I haven't seen a single person besides myself and the girl at the 'Magic Club D' DoCoMo showroom with this handset."
This small user base has so far kept game maker Sega from developing content for FOMA/3G. Since the demise of their Dreamcast hardware platform, Sega has been making games for nearly every electronic gaming platform, including some lively offerings for mobile phones. They haven't taken advantage of these new networks yet though: "You can surely play the current SEGA mobile games in FOMA and 3G, but for the FOMA and 3Gs specific ones we are still waiting because of the small subscribers and a high cost for game distribution" says Kinuyo Saito with Sega in Japan.
Number two Japanese mobile phone provider KDDI has succeeded in deploying their 3G coverage over more of Japan, for less money. They employed Qualcomm's CDMA2000 technology, which can be set up gradually, allowing the new phones to work on older, if slower networks. Their handsets have more options, including GPS, and they're still cheaper than those of DoCoMo. Accordingly, KDDI's 3G phone service has outsold DoCoMo's three times in one-seventh the amount of time (as of mid-May, 105,500 users signed up with DoCoMo, 334,100 with KDDI, according to J@panInc's Wireless Watch email newsletter).
But size isn't the only issue - audience composition matters as well. This is why Arjen van Blokland is an unabashed supporter of KDDI, at least in the short term. Blokland works for 104.com, a company providing mobile content services like personally customized calendars, celebrity quizzes, fortune telling. We spoke to him in his office near Tokyo University about the choice between the two early 3G providers in Japan. He started off describing the available hardware and services: "KDDI has been quite successful with CDMA1x. DoCoMo handsets are too expensive, the batteries last one and a half days, the quality of the network is not very optimal. KDDI has a wider service area, their CDMA1x phones are backward compatible with older networks, and [they offer] a better user experience." The pricing and flexibility of the KDDI service has created a different market for their phones.
While DoCoMo has attempted to pitch their FOMA service for business folks, according to Blokland, young people in Japan have picked up KDDI's 3G handsets. This is the future audience for 104.com's content: "We don't focus on a business audience," as Blokland put it directly, "Older people are not the innovators."
So 104.com is working solely with KDDI's CDMA1x service. Users can download snowboarding video clips, or video clips of DJs famous in Japan. Eventually 104.com hopes to package personal information services with videos - sign up for a weekend of snowboarding, check weather forecasts, view some live video feeds from up on the mountain.
For now it's just video clips, downloaded. Before expanding their services, Blokland is waiting for critical mass - around one million users in Japan. He notes "DoCoMo has recently introduced higher bandwidth non-3G phone, so it's not clear what their strategy is."
FOMA: Casual Surveillance
In spite of what seems to be early missteps, FOMA is not without some early adapters, and some early content offerings. Aeon Corporation boasts ads all over Tokyo with a gape-mouthed Ewan MacGregor offering a hand to anyone looking to learn English. On the Aeon web site they are promoting a service they call "Fomalish" - video-based English language instruction over your broadband mobile phone.
AlphaOmega Soft proposes to wire nurseries with video cameras so relatives can use their mobile phones to watch their little kids throughout the day. A company called Sogo Keibi Hosho offers streaming video of security cameras to your broadband phone: "Rusu-Mate" and "Car B Box" allow you to watch over your home and your car, respectively.
Streaming video for FOMA, "V-Live," just went live in mid-May. Those companies are each using a software backend provided by developers PacketVideo. Other streaming projects should emerge shortly; an audience of businessmen and pocket video makes pornography a likely FOMA content candidate.
A Phone in Every Airport
Kinetic networker and technophile Joichi Ito is the CEO of Neoteny Incorporated, an agile high-tech incubator based in Tokyo. Musing for a moment on a recent Monday afternoon, Ito wondered if 3G might end up a failure. Mobile technology laboratories began developing broadband mobile phone networks in 1996 under a few assumptions that haven't worked out thus far. As Ito describes it, they thought batteries would last longer, the cellular signal hubs would afford larger coverage for less money, and finally they thought that there would soon evolve a 3G-specific application to create demand. But so far there's not much you can do on a FOMA that you can't do on a previous generation J-Phone costing 20% of the price. Ito raises both his palms, "Nothing yet requires the 3G bandwidth."
Still too expensive in his estimation, FOMA is likely to be effectively challenged by far cheaper, more homespun solutions. "An 802.11 [Wi-Fi] base station does about as much [as a 3G celltower] for $500 instead of $2 million." He believes Wi-Fi is more likely to be the dominant carrier for broadband multimedia. So what about voice, I wonder? Ito responds immediately - "IP phones that use 802.11b!"
Until someone develops a compelling application that only works on 3G's broadband mobile networks, there isn't going to be a critical mass of folks willing to purchase these expensive handsets with limited capacities. Some cheaper solutions are now threatening the billions of dollars already invested in 3G services and networks. Letting kids have fun with these futuristic phones may be the only way to drive 3G; fortunately at least one company sees fit to let the children father the industry.
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Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Links.net. Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.