JIN-520 -- History says Google Buzz is likely to fizzle in Japan

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J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends in Japan.
Issue No. 520 Wednesday, March 3, 2010, Tokyo

Just last month Google announced a new, somewhat controversial, social networking platform called Buzz. Whatever your initial thoughts about Google Buzz are, one thing is clear—the world's largest search engine has finally tipped its hand, once and for all. Whether you are writing from Twitter, Facebook, or Buzz itself, your personal data stream will now be scrupulously indexed with an accuracy and attention to detail your own memory would be hard pressed to keep up with. All of this data is displayed in one "lifestream" made available to all your Buzz "friends" who can then comment on your various mundane daily travails with the same granularity that typifies your own entries.

The fact that privacy concerns riddled the initial launch of Buzz did not stop the new platform from taking off far more rapidly than the micro-blogging service Twitter that came before it. Woven tightly into the fabric of Google's Gmail service, Buzz is, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate social networking system. The only question at this point that may plague the engineers at Mountain View is how, exactly, to get the world to sign up for a Gmail account (something necessary, at least at this point, if you want to use the Buzz service).

Another one of the somewhat miraculous aspects of Google's Buzz initiative is the fact that changes administered to the service have occurred far more rapidly than any other service the company has offered before. Whereas other Google Labs products languished in beta for years as users—fans and foes alike—begged for updates, with Buzz the search giant appears to have a killer instinct in terms of adoption and ubiquitous presence. All modification requests are being taken seriously.

But the story of Google Buzz is not complete until you consider the other tools integrated along with Gmail: Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Chat, Google Voice, the new Google Chrome web browser, and of course the new Google Nexus phone, a touchscreen device that rivals the functionality and operational sexiness of the Apple iPhone.

Taking all these software initiatives into consideration, it now becomes obvious that Google's endgame is to create a seamless ecosystem in which all doors lead to yet another room controlled by the Google machine. Though this may all sound a bit ominous, and just a little Big Brother-ish, the inconvenient fact of it all is that Google delivers unique, and relatively unrivaled value.

Take, for example, Gmail, which provides unlimited storage to users free of charge. Unlimited storage: Free Of Charge. Just considering the notion of free, unlimited online storage, allowing you to store your documents in a "cloud," opens up a brand-new reality and makes the web something more than just a series of windows through which to access different locations, and turns the Internet into a true virtual environment.

Google's dominance of search, nascent cloud computing initiatives and now an entry into the telecom arena all point to a near governmental style reach in which Google plays the part of the first truly virtual nation-state. With the situation properly contextualized, it suddenly becomes far more reasonable that various non-U.S. governmental agencies are now raising suspicions with regards to the company's long-term intentions.

Needless to say, one of the biggest hurdles facing Google Buzz in Japan is the issue of privacy. Japanese citizens are notoriously protective of their private lives. Reference the incident just last year in which Google Maps was forced to remove hundreds of images from its Street View service after protest from local communities throughout Japan.

We still don't know exactly how much Google spent on the massive re-shoots, but the episode serves as proof that Google will have to cater to local market parameters when it comes to doing business in Japan. Nevertheless, a quick check of Japanese-language Gmail users reveals that Buzz is being used by a small group of early adopters. But this brave handful in no way points to a trend in Japan. While the Western social networking world is obsessed with ubiquitous presence, transmitting personal updates everywhere and anywhere, Japan is quite a bit different.

Although unrelated in terms of industry, it should be noted that very few Western films depict the real streets of incredibly beautiful cities like Tokyo and Osaka specifically because the denizens of the city, as well as local business owners, are so very productive of their privacy. In such an environment expecting Japanese Internet users, and more importantly mobile phone users, to suddenly open their lives up to the information ubiquity that is Google Buzz is a bit of a stretch, to say the least. In fact, unless Google can somehow forge relationships with major SMS services in Japan such as Mixi, Gree, or at least a major telecom company, the chance for Buzz to achieve any real relevancy in the country are, at least for now, slim.

------------------ ICA Event - March 18 -------------------

Speaker: Christopher Neufeld, Business Development Manager
-Frost & Sullivan
Topic: Green is the New Black!

Details: Complete event details at http://www.icajapan.jp/
(RSVP Required)

Date: Thursday, March 18, 2010
Time: 6:30 Doors open, Buffet Dinner included and cash bar
Cost: 4,000 yen (members), 6,000 yen (non-members)
Open to all -Venue is The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan