Japan's E-mail Board Market

- by Kyoko Fujimoto -

E-mail has been a popular way of communication for some time now, and even though statistics show Japan's PC penetration rate lagging that of the US, many people are interested in getting into the world of digital communications. The result? The e-mail board - a device born in Japan, where many people still think PCs are too expensive and too powerful for simple e-mail messaging.

Pcs are indeed still expensive in Japan. In the US, PCs are now being given away, but no such schemes have appeared here yet, and popular models like Sony's Vaio or Apple's iMac still cost more than \150,000. Surprisingly, the penetration rate of mobile telephones in Japan is almost the same as, or even surpasses, the PC penetration rate in the US. According to a report compiled by the MPT for fiscal 1998, 57.7% of all households in Japan have either a cellular or PHS telephone (Dataquest in the US says 50% of US households have a PC). First-time visitors to Japan are often surprised to see how many people are using mobile phones. One reason for this is that the device itself is now, in many cases, offered free to users (like the free PC scheme in the US). It seems natural for the Japanese to approach e-mailing from the mobile phone - rather than from the (expensive) PC - point of view.

From late 1997 to early 1998, many mobile telephone companies started offering basic e-mail service in addition to regular voice calls, and special telephone handsets that can be used with such services came on the market. These services and handsets, however, had limited functionality - e-mail messaging was usually restricted to users of the same service, and you could not exchange e-mail with regular PCs. But these services were sufficiently popular for users to become interested in using e-mail, and the demand for greater functionality started to grow.

Pocket Board onboard

Last year, NTT DoCoMo's e-mail board - the Pocket Board - started selling well amongst customers who were dissatisfied with the limited e-mail communication features offered by cellular phones. The Pocket Board is the first PDA (personal digital assistant) that functions exclusively as an e-mailer. It allows e-mail to be exchanged with three other messaging mediums: NTT DoCoMo's own cell phone-based Short Mail service; several of DoCoMo's pocket bell (pager) message services; and - most importantly - with regular PCs connected to the Internet. Users have to sign up with an ISP called Master Net (and use the 10 Mail Service - a pay-per-use service with no set-up or monthly fees), and need an NTT DoCoMo cell phone in order to use the Pocket Board online. The fact that it only accepts connection with DoCoMo cell phones may seem inconvenient, but DoCoMo has more than half of the Japanese cell phone market, and many users are already using a DoCoMo model anyway.

There are two kinds of Pocket Boards - the original version, which hit the market late in 1997, and the new Pure version, launched in April of this year. The maximum length of message both can send or receive is about 1,000 Japanese characters (about 2.2KB), and using the 10 Mail Service, the cost for sending such a message is approximately 10 (the actual cost depends on the net's speed at the time the message is sent, since 10 corresponds to 12 seconds of connection time). The original version has 64KB of memory and can store up to 20KB of e-mail messages to a maximum of 20 messages, and the Pure version can save even more - out of its 128KB total memory, 40KB can be used for saving messages (to a maximum of 80 messages). Furthermore, the Pure version allows users to send and receive messages during the same online session, saving transmission costs. With a special cable, both types can be connected to a regular PC.

Pocket Board for PHS

For PHS users, NTT Personal - now merged with NTT DoCoMo - last September released much the same type of e-mail board under the name Paldio E-Board. Unlike the Pocket Board - where users had to sign up with a particular ISP (Master Net) - the Paldio does not require signing up with any ISP. If you already have a DoCoMo PHS (or if you get one when you buy the Board), all you need to do is register your PHS number in the Paldio, and this number becomes the username portion (the portion before the @) of your e-mail address. It can send and receive messages up to 8KB in size (to a maximum of 9,000 Japanese characters), and can store 30 messages. Its size and weight are the same as the original Pocket Board, and the list prices for the Pocket Board and the Paldio E-Board are almost equal (see chart). The street price of the original Pocket Board may in fact be falling due to the release of the Pure version (one online shop was recently selling it for 6,480).

If you've got a DoCoMo cell phone or PHS and you're interested in getting a Pocket Board or Paldio E-Board, then be sure to check if your model is compatible with the Board before you buy. Not all DoCoMo phones support either the Pocket Board or Paldio E-Board (check either at the shop where you buy, or at the NTT DoCoMo data communication support desk at 0120-289-360).

Sharp - like a real PDA

Sharp's Communication Pal is a bit pricier but has more functions. Released at the end of last year, the Communication Pal supports all digital cell phones (but not PHS) and allows users to sign up with any ISP. Some of the basic software used with the Zaurus (the popular full-function PDA from Sharp) has been ported to the Communication Pal, allowing Pal to work not only as an e-mailer but also as a Web browser and scheduler. The Pal has 1.45MB of memory (more than 10 times as much as the Pocket Board Pure version), and the maximum size of a single message has been increased to 32,000 Japanese characters (about 64KB). In addition, certain common file types (GIF, JPEG, RTF) can be attached to messages, to a limit of 200KB (including the message itself), and it supports hand-written messages using the special pen provided. It has an IrDA port for data exchange with regular PCs.

All the machines introduced here so far look very similar to other palmtop computers, with the same sort of keyboard and a small display. But unlike other palmtops - which are usually more expensive than e-mail boards - they all come with the special cable required to be directly connected to a mobile phone. Of course they should - what's the use of an e-mail board if you can't get connected?

Silencing voice

Some industry watchers estimate that data transmission now comprises almost half of the total traffic generated by mobile phone users, and this is predicted to exceed voice volume in the future. Encouraged by this, DDI Pocket - a PHS company - started a service called Moji Denwa (letter telephone) in February, and devices intended to be used with the service have already been released. The Moji Denwa service aims at separating voice communications from PHS, and with the special handset (which does not provide regular voice ability), users can send e-mail messages that contain hand-written messages and illustrations.

Compatible devices released so far are the Tegacky from Toshiba and the Tegaki PiPi from Tomy. The Tegaki PiPi is supplied under an OEM agreement from Toshiba, so it has essentially the same size and functionality as the Tegacky. Both are sold for about the same price (quite affordable at a list price of 4,800). The maximum size of a single e-mail is about 1,000 Japanese characters, and these devices can store up to 1,000 e-mail messages. The address book can save not only names and phone numbers but also the e-mail addresses, residential addresses, and other personal information (including blood type!) for up to 200 people. The only differences between these two devices are the cartoon characters that appear on the screen, and the fact that the Tegaki PiPi is sold at toy stores and not at electronics or mobile phone shops.

Another device intended to be used with the Moji Denwa service - the Me-tel from Casio - was to be released in late April [exact date was not available at press time]. The Me-tel can store about the same number of messages as the other two Moji Denwa service devices, but the Me-tel can save an additional 100 entries in its address book and this data can be exchanged with other Me-tels. It has additional features including Sound Stamps and Picture Mail, which - although they work only with other Me-tel devices - make e-mailing much more interesting. With Sound Stamps, users can send a message that includes a choice of 30 different sound effects, including hands clapping, a bomb, gun shots, etc. With Picture Mail, users can select from 25 animation clips. Me-tel users can register other Me-tel users to use the direct chat function, enabling them to chat electronically without any connection charges, as long as the two devices are within 100m of each other - a feature sure to be a hit among classroom denizens.

Like the fully featured e-board Communication Pal, the PHS-compatible devices can support hand-written messages. Pen input is usually simple and easy even for those who are not familiar with using a keyboard, making them more accessible for first time e-mail users. When hand-written messages are sent to PC e-mail users, the hand-written part will appear as an attached file (BMP format). All three units are quite portable (see chart), and no mobile phone is needed in order to get connected.

Fascinated by e-mail

Although many Japanese have started to become interested in using the net and sending e-mail, the pasocon (personal computer) is for many people still too high-tech and complicated to use. People are looking for a cheaper alternative when it comes to simple e-mail, and e-mail board devices are succeeding because they are simple enough even for non-technical people, are affordable, and because they are portable, a feature that is popular in Japan's highly mobile urban society. The high penetration rate of mobile phones has also helped - the Pocket Boards or the Communication Pal, which require mobile phone connection, would not have survived otherwise. Sales of the Pocket Board reached 300,000 units as of March 1999, and more than 70,000 Communication Pal devices have been sold in the first four months on the market.

Recent reports by Nikkei Market Access state the most common use for PDAs is e-mail messaging, and e-mail volume is growing. Japan's mobile market is huge, and nowhere else in the world are small, portable devices as accepted culturally. There is a great future for e-mail board devices, and Japan may once again be setting a trend for the rest of the world to follow.

Kyoko Fujimoto is editorial assistant at Computing Japan..



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