Japan's Mobile Internet Roars Back

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2003

After the rest of the world wrote them off, Japanese mobile companies are back in the driver's seat.

by Setsuko Takahashi

LESS THAN A DOZEN months ago, media pundits and analysts everywhere were gleefully predicting the pending irrelevance of Japan's mobile Internet industry. The country's largest wireless carrier, NTT DoCoMo, had just announced a multi-hundred billion yen write-down on its overseas investments, Europe's nascent i-mode services were struggling to gain subscriber mindshare and, at home, success on the then-two third-generation (3G) services was favoring the one carrier using network technology imported from (gasp!) the USA.

Boosters of Japan's famous wireless Internet systems -- J-Sky, EZweb and i-mode -- were notably silent, and it seemed that mobile markets elsewhere, after extracting lessons and some token technology, were intent on ignoring Japan.

Today, it's the doomsayers' turn to eat humble okonomiyaki as Japan's cellular carriers reassert their leadership in the mobile domain.

In the first four months of 2003, NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and J-Phone added 1.899, 1.072 and 0.845 million subscribers to their wireless Internet services, respectively, according to the Telecommunication Carrier's Association (www.tca.or.jp). That's a lot of packet-using customers, but it's becoming evident that numbers alone don't tell the story: There are real, qualitative differences in how each carrier approaches the market.

This spring, all three operators here launched upgraded data services including multimedia messaging, a location-based mobile portal, enhanced e-commerce and new features such as global voice and data roaming.

This year has also seen Japan's handset makers commercialize camera phones boasting new, digital-camera-equivalent CCD cameras, removable memory and video mail capabilities. Among these, Sharp, Toshiba, Sanyo, NEC, Mitsubishi Electric and Matsushita are all competing for lead market position while eyeing overseas sales possibilities.

Sharp, which created the world's first successful camera-enabled handset, the J-SH04, for J-Phone in November 2000, has moved up several ranks to become a top-tier supplier to all three large domestic carriers. The firm has parlayed experience with J-Phone, the domestic operating company of UK-based Vodafone, into success outside Japan and started selling its camera-equipped GX-10 model, compatible with Vodafone's live! data service, in Europe in October 2002. live! now has over 1 million subscribers in more than 10 countries, with expansion planned for Egypt, Australia and New Zealand later this year.

In May this year Sharp launched the world's first megapixel-class camera phone, the J-SH53, offering mobile photo imaging on par with traditional low-end digital cameras.

J-Phone's launch of its third-generation "Vodafone Global Standard" service (using the newest revision of the globally accepted W-CDMA, or Wideband-Code Division Multiple Access 3G standard) has served to address the glaring gap in domestic roaming services. Enhanced roaming didn't arise, as might be expected, from NTT DoCoMo's massive overseas deployment in 2000-01. "This is the world's first 3G W-CDMA service based on international standards and will ensure compatibility with global networks," explains a J-Phone spokesperson.

In addition to providing high-quality voice communications on par with fixed-line, downlink packet data speeds of up to 384 kbps and 64-kbps circuit-switched videotelephony in Japan, Vodafone Global Standard users will also get unparalleled global connectivity with access to voice and short messaging service (SMS) roaming on GSM networks in over 70 countries by June 2003.

Now that all three major Japanese carriers have launched their 3G services (NTT DoCoMo launched their domestic-only W-CDMA system in October 2001 and KDDI opened their CDMA 1X service in April last year), mobile dialers here are also getting their first taste of cellular voice and data services segmented by demographics. In the previous 2G-only era, carriers were hard-pressed to offer any variation in services between youth, adult and business segments.

It's the doomsayers' turn to eat humble
okonomiyaki as Japan's cellular carriers
reassert their leadership

J-Phone is able to define a unique approach to the market. In fact, the operator's existing 2G services are now tailored for the heavy data-using teen-to-adult segment, the newer 3G services -- with voice and data roaming -- target sophisticated business customers, and the growing range of pre-paid handsets (including the popular Preca and enjorno models) serve entry-level users, including young married couples and the elderly.

Specific wireless Internet service offerings can also be highly differentiated. J-Phone's now-famous "Sha-mail" picture messaging service -- available on all new 2G handsets -- provides features that are hard to find on other networks. "With regards to picture messaging, Sha-mail's ease of use is a big differentiator. Users can send photos as mail attachments -- there's no requirement to have the recipient access a coded URL," explains a PR spokesperson.

2003 is shaping up as a banner year for Japan's complex "ecosystem" of third-party content, application and service providers as vendors refine and improve their services. Although sale of digital content such as ring tones, Java games and wallpaper images remains the core of the mobile Internet, one of the key developments on all three platforms has been the creation of sophisticated and effective mobile marketing systems.

These systems -- largely managed by the carriers and their lead advertising partners -- include opt-in mail messaging, special advertising-supported "advertorial" content sites, independent editorial reviews of new services updated weekly and tight integration with third-party contest and campaign marketing efforts.

Consumer-facing vendors such as candy makers (Morinaga), clothing retailers (Jeans Mate discount chain), soft drink suppliers (Kirin) and entertainment promotion companies (Tsutaya Online) have all successfully made use of mobile channels to market, promote and sell their products. But with some 50,000-plus unofficial i-mode sites as well as thousands more official content providers on J-Sky, EZweb and i-mode, there's still plenty of room for marketing innovation, and in some cases being smaller enhances a company's competitive edge.

One such firm is Tokyo-based Pacific Enabling Technologies (PAC ET), a recent spin-off from long-time Japan e-marketing leader FlyingColor Group. PAC ET supports their clients' mobile marketing initiatives with mobile development and system support and is one of the newest of the "full service" providers in the mobile e-marketing space.

The firm offers content and game development, systems integration and localization, e-marketing/mail marketing and e-payment services, and has expertise covering both traditional mobile Web technologies (such as the cHTML and WML mini-Web page markup languages) as well as the newest Java and multimedia Flash environments.

Thomas Jenkins, PAC ET principal at their Ebisu offices, also points to the firm's "RapidReach" eBusiness suite as one of their strengths. RapidReach combines the mCMS Mobile Content Management Platform, the PEP eMarketing platform and mform, a mobile document management system that allows companies to utilize their mobile sites to deliver document-based messaging.

Combined, these three systems target the key elements of all successful mobile marketing strategies: content development on the three lead carriers' wireless Internet services and mail marketing that allows an advertiser to manage, segment, target, broadcast and track mobile messaging campaigns. "For companies that are looking for a jump-start in the mobile market, the RapidReach Suite is a set of platforms that allows our clients to enter the mobile market with total ease and efficiency," says Jenkins.

The future will be evolutionary
rather than revolutionary

In addition to providing e-marketing development services to clients, PAC ET is a mobile content provider in its own right and now operates the "GenZero" official J-Sky site; the firm also seems to be setting a unique pace as one of the first e-marketers that targets not only the large, well-known J-Sky, EZweb and i-mode cellular-based webs, but also the PHS (personal handyphone system) content services run by carrier DDI Pocket as well as the new wireless LAN (WLAN) "free spectrum" networks now being established in central Tokyo.

"Our team has been here in the mobile space since its beginnings," say Jenkins, "and if that means creating award-winning mobile sites like we did with FlyingColor Group in 2001 for Heineken or building a cutting-edge mobile gaming system like we are doing now with MPM Technologies, we intend to provide the best solution in the most cost-effective manner." Clearly, the firm's ability to service both clients' e-marketing and technical development needs makes PAC ET's value proposition a strong one.
Like many Japan-experienced content, application and service providers, PAC ET is seeing a huge amount of interest in their mobile gaming offerings from overseas. The company is currently in discussions with one large, overseas brand-name owner to create a series of mobile games to promote the brand name in multiple markets. With the advent this year of Java technology on handsets in Europe and the US, there has never been a better time for advanced, made-in-Japan gaming technologies to evolve into markets elsewhere.

Jenkins adds that Japan's market "is moving fast." He points to Flash, mobile network gaming and the B2B market as areas that offer strong potential. In April, NTT DoCoMo announced support for the Flash graphics standard on its new 505i-series of i-mode handsets, and PAC ET is not waiting to take advantage of the multimedia possibilities this offers. "We see the market offering increased memory, increased handset display sizes, and increased scope in what we as a mobile e-marketing firm can offer," he adds.

This year also promises the commercialization of utterly new, 3G-based mobile Internet services that exist nowhere else. These include enhanced video conferencing, dual-mode terminals, innovative form factors straight out of Sci-Fi and the creation of vehicle-based "telematic" systems.

Minato-ku-based Mobilecast Inc. was founded in 2002 by Eiji Akaike. Mobilecast is also supported by Omron, a key manufacturer of control systems and other technology.

Mobilecast plans to create what is arguably the world's first open-platform mobile content delivery system targeting in-car terminals, based on KDDI's fast and popular (over 7.5 million users in April) CDMA 2000 1X third-generation network.

The firm refers to its telematics service as the first true "nomadic communications" system offering entertainment content, driver support, safety and security from any location. Mobilecast's system is called "nomadic" due to its anywhere, anytime accessibility. It will deliver road and traffic information, satellite navigation data, weather, radio broadcast, visual content, audio entertainment, remote diagnosis, remote maintenance check and roadside emergency notification and response services to consumers' cars. Mobilecast will also enable digital fleet management and other transportation enterprise services.

As an "open platform," similar to the existing J-Sky, EZweb and i-mode systems themselves, Mobilecast's system will combine a content creator community of third-party providers, a Mobilecast Telematics broadcast service center and an in-car TAS (Telematics Application Server) terminal. Mobilecast will enable third-party providers to deliver entertainment, services and e-commerce straight to cars.

"We call it the advent of the 'entertainment car,'" says CEO Akaike, pointing to the ability for a third-party company like a car maker or a consumer brand owner to create and deliver their own branded services via Mobilecast. "We're selling a lifestyle," he adds, clearly cognizant of the powerful, wallet-opening techniques used for so long by product and service providers in Japan's consumer space. "We are a new media in between broadcasting and communications."

After being demonstrated at the October Tokyo Motor Show, the system is scheduled for launch in the fall of 2003 with an initial suite of data services operating on a simple terminal that will be expanded in 2004 with an in-car terminal taking advantage of KDDI's 2.4-Mbps CDMA 2000 1X EV-DO network, due for rollout by the end of 2003.

Like PAC ET, Mobilecast is also planning to extend its service to include the new WLAN network technology. Akaike describes a "hotspot" version of Mobilecast wherein garages, chain restaurants or indeed anyone with a parking lot can install a "data vending machine." A Mobilecast-equipped vehicle need only park nearby (WLAN allows ranges of up to a few hundred meters), pay a fee and then download video, audio or other rich-media contents for later on-the-road enjoyment.

The firm expects to see 1 million Mobilecast-equipped vehicles on the road by 2006, and is also investigating expansion to the US and China in view of those markets' use of CDMA 2000 1X and 1X EV-DO networks similar to Japan's.

But the future will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. "We do not see a 'killer app' coming from 3G," said one J-Phone press representative. "Rather, with 3G, we'll see an evolution of the already popular 2G data services like ring tones, picture messaging, video messaging and mobile content. And with our service offerings, 3G users will be able to enjoy 'powered-up' versions of these services not only in Japan, but in almost any other part of the world." @


When calling from outside Japan please dial the country code (81) first, then 3 for Tokyo (omitting the 0), followed by the number.

J-PHONE Co., Ltd.
Tel: 03-6403-1062
Atago Green Hills MORI Tower,
2-5-1 Atago Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-6205
J-PHONE Co., Ltd. is a leading mobile operator in Japan and a member of the Vodafone Group, the world's largest mobile community. J-PHONE offers sophisticated mobile services including high quality voice telephony, "Sha-mail" picture messaging, "Movie Sha-mail" video messaging, "J-SKY" mobile internet, e-mail access and international roaming. The company has over 14 million customers, of which 67% are Sha-mail users and 87% J-SKY subscribers. J-PHONE was awarded one of three licenses to operate 3G mobile services in Japan and launched a commercial 3G W-CDMA service, Vodafone Global Standard, on December 20, 2002. For more information, please visit www.j-phone.com

Mobilecast Inc.
Tel: (03)5733-5757
Fax: (03)5733-5656
Shiroyama JT Trust Tower 33F,
4-3-1 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-6033
Contact Person(s): Eiji Akaike, CEO
The Mobilecast Telematics Center, utilizing the world's first true third-generation open mobile platform in Japan, provides traffic, road conditions, maintenance, navigation and emergency information direct to vehicles. It delivers rich entertainment content to users, creating a highly liberated automative network.

Pacific Enabling Technologies (PAC ET)
Tel: (03)3760-9981
Fax: (03)3760-9990
2-23-17 Ebisu Minami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0022
Contact Person(s): Thomas Jenkins
PAC ET combines our clients' mobile marketing initiatives with mobile development and system support. We focus on: Mobile Content Development; Java-Appli Development; Mobile Systems Development and Localization; Mobile Site development and building; Mobile eMarketing; Mobile Payment Systems and Validation.

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