Exploring the Cellular Frontier

Opinion: On a visit to Tokyo, Edmund Ronald observes Japan's advanced use of commercial cell phone applications.

Need a phone in Japan? The Vodafone counter at Tokyo Narita airport will sell you a phone with a prepaid card for around a hundred dollars, less of a hassle than rental. Even though its an outdated, cheap model, my new flip phone is the tiniest Ive ever owned, with front and back color screens and a camera.

Prepaid phones are officially frowned upon because local criminal elements and foreigners use them. In practice, however, they are often given to children: A scan of the manual indicates that my phone can be tracked over the Web—I guess parents must like this feature as much as the cops do.

My flip-phone does have one feature of guaranteed appeal to teenage daughters, though: A button press causes the screen to turn into a mirror!

Schoolgirls heading into the trendy Shibuya district via the subway can be observed morphing themselves from demure, model children into pancake-powdered punk groupies. A mirror is obviously essential for makeup, and I presume, for the pre-curfew cleanup.

But when you look away from the kids to count everyone in the carriage under 35, one female in two and one male out of three will be thumbing a "keitai" cell phone.

As I remember it, cell phones really caught on in Japan when young women latched on to them soon after the schoolgirl-pager generation. The Japanese pagers that preceded phones had two-way text messaging based on Motorolas Reflex technology; they were such a runaway success that they sold out.

/zimages/5/28571.gifCell phone service resumes in two New York City tunnels. Click here to read more.

At the time, pundits thought that the pool of chatty young girls would soon be fished out, and cell phone sales would stagnate. However, the devices went mainstream, popular more as Web access and silent text messaging devices than for voice use. There are no shouters on public transportation here.

In fact, there are no shouters anywhere: The flip-phone design seems to have excellent acoustics. However, its definitely the messaging which is the killer feature: Messaging provides a silent way around the stringent no-personal-call policy enforced at many workplaces.

Nowadays, it is the cell phone that has become the ubiquitous net-access device in Japan, combining text content, sound, video and games. The PC is definitely the also-ran in Japan. And pay content is where its at: pay-text content, pay-sound content, pay-"chaku-uta" ring tones and "chaku motion" video clips, pay-Java games, or pay mapping with the GPS facility embedded in some phones.

The Docomo catalog informs me that I can access phone-formatted CNN headlines for just $3 per month. A similar subscription will let me download a Java golf game or Namcos 3-D Pac-Man. A dictionary site will let me look up some words in exchange for a micropayment.

In lieu of each sites URL, the catalog shows a printed square 2-D barcode that can be scanned in by the phones camera to take me directly to the site. The fee would end up on my phone bill.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read about contactless payment at 7-Eleven stores.

The telecommunications operators sell the phones under their own brands and try to drive their revenue by constantly experimenting with new features tuned to access new content. Pay content is a sheltered glasshouse ecology where revenue from the consumers phone bill trickles down from the telecom operator to the content providers.

This fee-sharing is a very different model from the advertising-driven nature of the "wild" Internet, as fee recovery is done by the operator. An NTT DoCoMo "i-mode" content provider posts no advertising on the site and hires no ad sales staff or billing personnel.

Also, the subscription model has transformed the known headache of cent-sized micropayments into multidollar amounts.

Next Page: Turning the phone into an electronic wallet.