Mobile Carriers Go Java

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2000

by Yaeko Mitsumori

As of November 1999, NTT DoCoMo had won more than 2 million subscribers for its i-mode telephone system-the world's first Internet services package offered via cellular phone. Attracted by this Net-savvy and affluent subscriber base, content providers have been rushing into bed with NTT, and by November 10, some 250 official and over 2,470 unofficial websites were i-mode enabled.

Late last year, the NTT subsidiary revealed that Java-enabled i-mode services would be launched by yearend 2000, and existing content providers are working overtime to create offerings that take advantage of the enhanced functionality Java provides. Manufactured by Matsushita, NEC, and Mitsubishi, the new Java-enabled i-mode cellular phone prototypes were on display at ComJapan 1999, organized by the Communications Industry Association of Japan (CIAJ).

Takeshi Natsuno, media director of NTT DoCoMo's Gateway Business Department, said: "By adding Java technology, i-mode will be able to provide attractive, end-to-end services to consumers." One remarkable feature about the new service is the ability to download and run applications directly on the cellular phone unit. Subscribers can play dynamic games in color, and animated game characters will be able to walk, talk, and move. The unit will also be able to display 3D graphics at a reasonable speed. "Even conventional games and characters should become much more attractive (on the Java i-mode)," said Takeshi Shimizu, of game maker Bandai's New Property Development Division.

The final Java-enabled i-mode specifications had not been released as of press time. NTT DoCoMo and Sun Microsystems are still hashing out details of the K Virtual Machine-designed to run Java applications on high-volume, small-footprint, consumer lifestyle products like cellular phones. NTT DoCoMo has already announced, however, that the services' download speed will be 9.6 Kbps, sufficient for an impatient game player to download a 100-300 KB game in 10-30 seconds.

But Shimizu is quite optimistic. He believes that although the download capacity is restricted, there is still scope for game software programmers to create compelling offerings. "We can create attractive games. It is up to the creator's imagination and skill," he said. Tamagotchi, wildly popular in Japan and around the world, requires a mere 6 KB, he added. But where are the B-to-B services?

Makoto Hirao of Daiwa Securities noted that since the new Java phone will have more memory capacity, users may want to download stock price charts and current quotes (see "Blowing out the walls" on page 19). Norio Hasegawa, from NTT DoCoMo's PR department, points out that Java will also improve the security of transactions conducted with the i-mode phone. Transactions with banks, security houses, and ticket sellers can be enhanced by installing SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) on the terminals. (Hasegawa added that the current i-mode service maintains quite strict security by encryption and by using leased lines between content providers' servers and DoCoMo's gateway server.)

However, some issues remain to be solved before Java-enabled i-mode clears the gate. In part due to the tremendous number of users, the 9.6 Kbps download speed-only about 17% as fast as the 56 Kbps modem usually pre-installed in desktop PCs-sometimes drops, and it can take as long as 15 seconds to receive a new game-an agonizing wait for diehard fans. Also, subscribers to i-mode websites pay the content providers a fixed monthly fee; this will remain less than popular until a fee-per-byte structure is adopted.

In fact, these factors, combined with memory capacity limitations, mean that true B-to-B mobile services may not be practical until the launch of IMT-2000 (third generation mobile) services, scheduled for spring 2001. At that time, NTT DoCoMo is planning to offer enhanced i-mode-like services based on new IMT-2000 cellular phone terminals, allowing download speeds of up to 64 Mbps. IMT-2000 models should also be lighter and cheaper.

Encouraged by NTT DoCoMo's hypersuccess, other carriers are looking to initiate similar mobile Net services. The J-Phone Group launched its version under the J-Sky Service brand in December 1999; the Tu-Ka Group, now part of the DDI Group, kicked off EZweb in November 1999; and the DDI Cellular Group working with IDO Corp. has announced a new 64 Kbps packet communication service. These three companies are planning to expand their services dramatically, and will introduce new services based on MML, a Java competitor developed by the J-Phone Group. Some 40 content providers are scheduled to provide 70 different services, and customers will be billed ´yen;2 per 6 KB "page," plus ´yen;2 per download request. At the same time, the J-Phone Group will start selling Japan's first cellular phone equipped with a color display-the J-SH02, by Sharp.

As for the future, mobile phone usage-and the services provided to millions of subscribers via Java and other technologies- should grow at a startling pace.

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