I just got back from a week in Tokyo, paradise for mobile geeks. 3G seems to be taking Japan by storm. In wandering around the city, I saw many of the latest 3G handsets in use. One of the most popular seemed to be NEC’s Linux based N902i on the DoCoMo FOMA network. The selling point of this phone is the 2MP camera with image stabilization and auto focus, but the nicest part for me was the Netfront browser on the 2.5 inch, 240 x 345 (dubbed QVGA+TM) TFT screen with 262,144 colors. The N902i also has an MP3 player with equalizer, a PDF viewer, support for the Japanese i-Appli Java standard for games and applications and it does OTA MP3 downloads and uses a mini-SD for storage. You can read an English brochure or down load the English edition of the phone’s manual here. The phone’s UI can be toggled between Japanese and English
and it can roam on European UTMS and GSM networks as well as North American 1900 mHz networks (see comments). The N902i sells for around $150 with a new two year contract and about twice that for a user who upgrades an existing NTT plan to 3G with a one year contract extension. At 106mm X 51mm X 25mm and 127 grams, the N902i is large by US standards (the RAZR for example, is 98 x 53 x 14 mm and 97 grams) but fairly typical for Japanese phones which generally feature large screens – several models have 2.8 or 2.9 inch LCD’s. In fact the N902i has a stablemate, the Symbian based Mitsubishi D902i – a slider with a 2.8″ screen which I also saw several people using in Tokyo. Both of these phones are considered feature phones rather than smartphones by the operators. Many Japanese feature phones run either Linux or a version of Symbian with a Japanese developed UI called MOAP (“Mobile Oriented Applications Platform”). Disappointingly, it appears that neither of these phones supports installing native Linux or Symbian applications. On the plus side, i-Appli, the Japanese Java subset, does seem to have more access to the phone’s hardware than Java ME.
Japanese 3G uses two different technologies. The number one and number three carriers NTT and Vodaphone use UMTS at the worldwide (except for North America) standard frequency of 2100 mHz. Japanese UMTS phones are world-phones and can operate on UTMS networks in Europe and Asia. Most also support GSM at 900, 1800 and 1900 mHz. GSM is not used in Japan and is provided on these phones to enhance their international roaming capabilities. The older 2G Japanese systems used unique technologies and frequencies and were not comparable with any other networks in the world. The number two Japanese network AU by KDDI uses EV-DO which has a significant speed advantage over UMTS. That speed advantage seems to be paying off for AU which now has almost as many 3G subscribers – 21.8 million as DoCoMo which has 23.5 million. Vodaphone, which recently sold their Japanese operation to Softbank trails badly with only 3 million 3G users. Unlike DoCoMo and Vodaphone’s 3G handsets, AU’s use unique Japanese frequencies and won’t work anywhere else in the world.
If you’re thinking it would be neat to import one of these Japanese UTMS/GSM phones for use in your country, think again. In Japan phones are not normally sold without a contract and in addition all the phones are SIM-locked and only a few models have been successfully unlocked.
The cost of mobile service including data is coming down in Japan although it’s still on the high side. A basic 3G plan runs about 4050 Yen ($34) including tax. You only get between 24 between 60 voice minutes per month (depending on carrier and time of day) with the 4050 Yen plan. Extra voice minutes are about $0.26 each.
The good news is that you can add an unlimited data option for an additional 4050 Yen per month. That’s only for data consumed on the phone, tethering is extra.
It is a common observation that the Japanese use their phones constantly but rarely speak on them. I can certainly vouch for that. On the subway, where signs warn that phones must be silent – about half the riders at every given time were tapping away on their phones. Surreptitiously looking over the shoulders of my fellow riders, I did an un-scientific survey of what they were using their phones for. About 50% seemed to be browsing the mobile web, about 25% were reading and responding to e-mail and the remaining 25% playing games.
There was heavy promotion on the trains and TV for mobile Suica the just launched contactless e-wallet system that lets you use your mobile as a RFID based stored value payment card. Special gates with the SUICA logo (a penguin!) at most subway and train stations in Tokyo interact with software in the phone to operate the gates and deduct the fare from your SUICA account. You can recharge with a credit card using the phone or a website. The aforementioned N902i is one of nine phones that is mobile SUICA enabled. Suica has been around in the form of a RFID card for several years now and is also accepted at many coffee shops and newsstands.
Speaking of coffee shops, I was pleasantly surprised that lattes and espresso are currently the rage in Tokyo. I’d been warned that I’d be paying $5 a cup for coffee in Tokyo – not good for someone who consumes five or more cups of Java a day. I was resigned to switching to green tea. Instead I found Starbucks style coffee joints on almost every block. A few were actual Starbucks or Tullys but most were Japanese clones like Excelsior Coffee, Doutour and Beck’s. A short latte was between $1.75 and $2.45 at these places – about the same as in San Francisco. Actually in spite of what I heard about Tokyo being incredibly expensive, I found just about everything about the same price as San Francisco. Our hotel which was great, with very comfortable beds, free wifi in the room and free PC’s in the lobby and friendly, helpful English speaking staff was only $100/night for my wife and I. Breakfast averaged $5 a person at the hotel (including coffee!) with lunch at the conveyor style sushi places about $10 and dinner $25/person in a nice neighborhood sushi bar or tonkatsu place,
Staying off topic, I want to put in a plug for the Japanese rail system. Tokyo is the largest city in the world and most commuters use the subways and trains. The system is very complex (check out this map) with a couple dozen lines operated by at least six different public and private agencies – and yet for the first time in a major city I never once got on the wrong train or missed my stop. The signage in the stations is great, it’s in English and Japanese as are the crystal clear automated announcements on the trains. The newer trains have sixteen 15″ color LCD monitors in each car. Eight of the monitors alternately display a moving map showing where the train is, the name of the next stop in Japanese and English and a chart of the platform at the next station showing the location of each stairway and escalator. The other eight monitors alternate between showing advertising and system status such as delays. Even the older trains have a strip chart above each door showing all the stops on the line with a moving light indicating where the train is currently. I though London and Paris had great transit systems, but Tokyo blows them away.
Back to mobile trends, NaviTime – a GPS enabled application that provides driving and walking directions displayed on both maps and aerial photos was being heavily promoted on TV. NaviTime has several versions including Java for NTT and Vodaphone and BREW for KDDI AU. There is even a BREW version for Verizon in the USA. The slickest version and the only one with the aerial photos is a Mobile Flash application and works on several recent Flash enabled NTT phones including the N902i and D902i.
The launch of live digital broadcast TV on mobile phones was also being heavily hyped on both Japanese television and in the shops. The service called One-Seq, streams normal network broadcast TV to the phone. NTT DoCoMo and KDDI AU simultaneously launched the service, which is free for the first few months – however only three handsets currently support it. Wireless Watch Japan has a nice video of the digital TV service on AU’s Hitachi W41H – which has a beautiful 2.7″ screen. The video is available in WMV, Real, or QT.
While they are not new, having been in use in Japan for at least a couple of years, QR Codes, bar codes that can be read by most Japanese phones were everywhere – on posters, flyers, web pages, business cards and in newspaper and magazine ads. QR codes are very versatile. Scanning a QR code with a QR capable phone can add contact information (typically from a QR Code on a business card) to the phone’s address book or launch the browser and load a mobile site or load a ring tone or an image containing a map to a store. When we visited Kamakura, home of the great Buddha and other shrines and temples, the tourist information counter at the train station was giving out a map in English and on the map were QR codes for the Kamakura town i-Mode site as well as at least a dozen other QRs pointing to the mobile sites of advertisers. The Semacode project is similar and is available as a Java ME applet for most North American and European camera phones, however unlike QR Codes in Japan, Semacode has not yet been widely adopted. Based on the Japanese experience, I do believe that Semacode has great potential.