A combination of an urban lifestyle and infrastructure advantages mean that the fixed internet is being left behind by the mobile
Thursday September 27 2007
Japanese commuters while away the journey by watching TV on their mobiles. Photograph: David Sacks/Getty
Yasuko San is aiming her mobile at a small, square tattoo on paper, clicking a little and peering happily at the result. Her prize? The latest novel written for the mobile, entitled “Teddy”. Such serialised novels for mobiles are just the latest phone application that has caught the Japanese imagination, but – apart from neighbouring South Korea – few others.
Those printed square icons, however, made their debut in the UK earlier this month (to promote the DVD of the film 28 Weeks Later). Known as QR (quick read) codes, they have aided Japan’s mobile revolution by making it easy to access a web page via mobile. Users can be directed to sites by snapping the codes printed in magazines, posters and even on biscuits.
Their British outing is a full four years behind Japan’s adoption. In fact, we lag Japan in nearly every aspect of mobile use – except possibly in annoying other commuters on trains.
Lost in Japan? Let your mobile’s GPS guide you. Bored? Download the latest manga comic or an e-book to read on the train, or go shopping and pay by swishing your mobile in front of the till, because the phone is also an electronic wallet.
You can also collect e-coupons, pay bills, play Final Fantasy, update your blog and pay and check into hotels wirelessly. Soon the airport check-in will be history in Japan, too, as the e-ticket in your phone becomes your boarding pass.
Nearly all are services based on the success of the mobile web in Japan, where in a nation of 127 million the number of mobile internet subscribers recently passed 100 million. Not for nothing are the Japanese now known as the Thumb Tribe – a tribe who, for the most part, prefer their mobile to the fixed internet.
Apart from the killer application – email – 80% say they use other functions too. Downloading music is popular (80% have tried it), as is TV for mobile – half of its subscribers use it regularly. Three quarters of users say they enjoy online clothes shopping with their mobile at least once a month. What they are less keen on is video calling: in Japan, as in the UK, 90% say “no thanks, never”. And as for using the mobile as a modem – to link to the internet – that’s very expensive in Japan.
It is no wonder those touting m-commerce as the next big web thing tell us Japan is the future blueprint. “Japan is the world’s high-tech testbed for a wide range of consumer electronic devices and systems – many of which never see the light of day in overseas markets,” says Daniel Scuka, keitai guru and consultant for publishers Wireless Watch Japan. “So keeping up with developments here is vital to knowing what’s going to hit Europe and the US 24 months in the future; doubly so with respect to mobile and wireless.”
By offering the Japanese a multiplicity of services – and, very importantly, some very cool handsets to use them on – the operators have created what every western mobile service provider is dreaming of: a mobile lifestyle culture that keeps millions reaching for the mobile rather than the fixed internet. But it does have its disadvantages.
Most us would feel miffed if we lost or damaged our mobiles. The Japanese would be paralysed without theirs: nearly half of Japanese confess to being obsessed with their mobile phones.
But why is such technology such a hit in Japan and not in other mobile-savvy nations such as Finland? According to the man who kickstarted the trend – the father of i-mode, NTT DoCoMo’s Takeshi Natsuno – it is because of the Japanese genius for designing new technologies that can be adopted by anyone, especially techno-phobes. It’s not about “bandwidth, nor standards, nor unique Japanese culture”, he says. It is about “fun and convenience”.
When i-mode was launched in the UK a few years ago, the hopes were Natsuno was right and mobile internet would take off as it had in Japan. It didn’t. “Basically these things succeeded best where the Japanese model was most faithfully stuck to. Telecom France, for example, had success with i-mode,” says Scuka.
Britain apparently went its own way with i-mode and relied on phones that weren’t up to the job. It flopped and recently was buried alongside that other great mobile pretender, WAP. However, we in Europe do not have some of the advantages that DoCoMo and the other carriers enjoy in Japan. As Terrie Lloyd, a business analyst, points out: “Japanese mobile phone bandwidth is free to the carriers. They didn’t have to pay for it. So rather than skin the consumers for every cent, they keep a good-value proposition.
The Japanese are blessed with some of the best-looking technology in the world. It has to be intuitive, simple and high-quality, not because the Japanese are so tech-savvy, but because they are the most demanding consumers in the world.
According to Scuka, more than 100 new phones hit the Japanese market last year as manufacturers tried out new ideas on the public. Some cultural factors, as with any other country, do play a part in Japan’s willingness to take up some technologies such as TV on the mobile.
As in Europe, this was at first a washout, but as watching TV in public becomes more socially acceptable in Japan, the number of subscribers is rising. Au, the second largest mobile network in Japan, recently signed up its five millionth subscriber to the service.
“Japanese commute on trains. The average person commutes at least an hour each way every day – that’s a lot of eyeball time. Only teenagers in Europe can match this sort of availability,” says Scuka.
It is this urban lifestyle where convenience is the key which has necessitated the rise of the all-in-one mobile plus those very funky handsets. By comparison Apple’s iPhone is a mere 2.5G plaything. In Japan, which is already into 3G and heading towards 4G, they make mobiles look good and work hard.