That didn’t take long. And didn’t go that far.

After some heavy lobbying from interested parties in Japan, the government kinda backed down on its promise to unlock all handsets in Japan.

In the end, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry will let operators decide if they want to unlock their phones or not, at least for the current generations of devices. Final plans of the regulations are expected for June.

The only obligation will be for the operators s to disclose which phones are unlocked in a clear way, in order to offer choice to the public.

The ministry explained its decision by saying it will allow for a test before the next generation of phone are released. The success, or lack thereof, could help it draft a more strict policy, this time possibly dictating a full unlock to the four carriers.
The absence of compatibility among certain networks was also advanced as an explanation on why a full unlock would not profit all customers.

With SoftBank having been voicing the most concerns about the prospect amongst the big four, it’s almost certain that the iPhone will remain locked for the foreseeable future (notwithstanding having its own dedicated SIM card).

[Update: plans are abandoned following Softbank SIM lock of iPads in Japan]

The rumor has been floating for a while, but it’s finally getting serious: NTT DoCoMo will offer microSIM cards for the iPad in Japan.

The Mainichi Shimbun writes that the biggest Japanese mobile operator’s President mentioned the Apple device during the recent earning conference. The iPad being unlocked, operators are free to provide their own services, which DoCoMo is strongly considering.

There were no details on any data plans, nor any provisional schedule for the cards release.

While the device hasn’t yet hit the shores of Japan, mainly due to Apple delaying international sales after having a hard time coping with demand in the US, it has garnered headlines and big interest in the country.

SoftBank has been the sole operator carrying the iPhone since its inception on July 2008. It has helped the carrier rank high in subscription growth, slowly closing the gap with KDDI and DoCoMo. Unlike other countries, no law requires phones to be unlocked, thus leaving the iPhone in its exclusive hands, even after the end of the usual 2-year contract.

The operator has not yet finalized any microSIM rollout nor data plan for the iPad. The recent uncovering of the iPhone 4G however shows that the new SIM format will also be adopted for Apple’s handset and SoftBank, still believed to keep selling the iPhone in the short term, might hence soon announce some iPad service.

UPDATE 5/10: DoCoMo seems to have abandoned any plans to release micro-SIM cards for the iPad in Japan, following the announcement that the device will be SIM locked to Softbank’s network

Follow our complete iPad landing in Japan coverage

Not to be outdone by other table offerings that seem all the rage these days (and by that I mean totally outdone), Sharp has announced a new model in thier Ubuntu powered nettop computer range with a release date for Japan sometime in May.

The PC-T1 sports a 5-inch touchscreen, wi-fi, bluetooth, and 8GB of flash memory (but with a measly 1.5 leftover after preloaded system and software).

Slimming down a bit by dropping the keyboard from previous models, the PC-T1 weighs a respectable 280 grams (down from 400 grams from the previous model) and has an impressive 6 hour battery life.  Considering this is a Sharp device, we can expect a nice screen and the 1024×600 resolution is something to look forward to. Throw in a USB port and you have a pretty neat little device.

That said, I can’t imagine it will be worth the price.  Expected to be around 47,000 yen (around $500 USD), this device looks straight across the table at the iPad and tops most entry level netbooks with only average specs.  If your dream in life is to have a small, lightweight Linux based tablet netbook, this could be your lucky day, but at that price you are paying a premium for obscurity.  You might be better off with a Nintendo DS LL/XL if you just want a lightweight nettop.

Still, it is nice to see Japanese makers testing out the tablet waters and with a release before the Japan release of the iPad Sharp should capitalize a bit on the tablet buzz.

SHARP Netwalker PC-T1

Traveling to Japan? Will you need a means of communication? Prepare your pocket if you are up to rent a phone, a SIM card or a Data card in Japan. Most providers give you different choices for rental devices, but be careful because prices from one to another might vary a lot. Please read carefully the following information and then check all the links. Prices can vary from one another, and through time as well.

Do you want to rent a 3G SIM card in Japan?

If you have an iPhone, or a NOKIA compatible with Japanese WCDMA2100 technology, then you are able to rent it. (Sorry, Android seems too new at this moment). Though you have some providers who give you the possibility to rent it, using Softbank might be one of the best choices.

http://www.softbank-rental.jp/en/phones/sim3g.php

Though renting might be cheap (105 yen a day), using it can turn your bill a nightmare.
Check the rates here

You can apply for it directly from your sofa at home. Get it online, and be ready to pick it up when you arrive at the airport. If you aren’t so sure yet about which provider you would like to use, just spend some extra time at the airport to rent your 3G SIM card. Note that you won’t be able to rent a 3G SIM card anywhere else.

What if I want to use my own phone?

If your phone uses a 3G GSM SIM card you will be able to use this option. You can rent just the handset and use the GSM SIM card. But remember that you must check your roaming agreements with Softbank (vodafone) prior to come to Japan.
http://www.softbank-rental.jp/en/phones/roaming.php

What if my phone has nothing of the above?

Then your only choice is to rent a Japanese phone. You can try the following services:
Softbank (quite cheap at the moment)
Pururu (with a special offer for 30 days)
E-phone
G-Call
Jal ABC

I also need a Data Card!

If you want to use internet wherever you go, to rent a Data Card for your Mac or PC might be a good idea. The most popular is called e-mobile.
The following companies offer data card services:

Pururu
E-phone
G-Call
Jal ABC

If you check the rates, Pururu has the best rental fees at the moment. But remember that this can change at any time. So please check all providers before flying to Japan.

What about a pocket wifi?

Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems that providers are not offering that option.

Where can I rent it?

At the Airport. You can check the list of providers in Narita International Airport here:

http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/guide/service/list/svc_19.html

Providers only have rent options at the Airport, so once you exit it, you’ve lost all opportunities to rent a phone, 3G SIM card, or Data Card. Unless, that is, you go back to the airport just for that.

UPDATE Nov. 3 2010: Read Visiting Japan? Mobile Phone and Data Plans to Keep You Connected

As reported by other news sources, the international launch of the iPad has been postponed until the end of May.

A quick (and somewhat panicked) check of the Apple Japan website confirmed that Japan will not see the local launch of the iPad until “the end of May”. Not happy news here by any means.

Apple fans across Japan will be waking to the news that instead of just a couple of weeks until the arrival of the much anticipated new product, we still have well over a month to go. Apple is blaming the huge US sales numbers for a shortage, and reports are starting to come in that stores have been selling out in the United States.

That comes as little comfort to the faithful here in Japan and I expect the flames to burn brightly on 2ch today.

http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2010/04/14advisory_ipad.html

For those in Japan, How do you feel about the delay? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

Follow our complete iPad landing in Japan coverage

NTT DoCoMo has its HT-03A and SoftBank its HTC Desire. KDDI doesn’t seem to want to be left behind.

Well, sorta, since they’re announcing a phone for …October.

A Smartbook, err, a Notebook, err, a Smartphone.

The Sharp IS01 Communicator is a unusual phone for nowadays standards, reminding me of Psions and Nokia Communicators of the past, with a full QWERTY keyboard notebook-like design.

The CDMA handset will be powered by Android 1.6. Yes, 1.6, not the current 2.1 featured in the Desire. The data will get througn EVDO Rev A for 3G and 802.11g Wifi is added to the mix. Users will have to do with 4GB of internal storage, but microSDHC should give some more room if necessary.

Sharp touts that the handset can be used with thumbs only, but has thrown both a trackball and multi-touch.

960 x 480 room for TV love

More interestingly, it’s the first Android device to natively support 1Seg TV, the mobile audio/video/data broadcasting service –basically TV on your phone, regularly found on keitais in Japan (and on the iPhone, thanks to a SoftBank-specific device).

Popular social networking mixi will have an app installed, as for Twitter & Sekai camera. Quick image editing for blogging is also mentioned by the manufacturer, as to clearly hint at whom it targets this device.

Dedicated Application Market

KDDI has concurrently announced the linking of its app market au one Market to the Google Android market, adding its own billing platform in the mix.

It also hinted at a later version of an Android smartphone with touchless payment.

We’re going to watch out for this one for a review, but, again, the announcement comes very early.

No pricing is yet known.

Oh, it also comes in light blue.

Images by Sharp and Impress

SoftBank, the number 2 Japan carrier, is going Android after all.

As we broke news earlier, the operator announced that it would start carrying the HTC Desire, renaming it the X06HT and will launch it with Android 2.1 almost untouched.

Softbank’s Nexus

The Desire is basically Google’s Nexus One without the search engine branding and was announced by HTC at the Mobile World Congress in mid-February in Barcelona.

It comes with an unique home screen that reminds a lot of Apple’s exposé, which allows to see all home screens at once.

The hardware is close to Google’s phone, with Qualcomm’s 1GHz SnapDragon chip for instance, but leaving some features out as to reduce pricing, while adding nice touches as an optical trackpad.

SoftBank will offer it at around 10,000-16,000JPY with contract and add a 2GB microSD card to the lot. The S! Basic Pack (315 JPY per month) will be needed for internet connectivity.

Smartphone diversification

It’s interesting that SoftBank, known for its flagship smartphone, Apple’s iPhone, would diversify like this. Up to now, only NTT DoCoMo was selling an Android-powered phone, the disappointing HT-03A (KDDI has previewed its Sharp IS01 but won’t sell it before October). I wouldn’t read too much into it and imply that the carrier is dissatisfied with the current level of iPhone sales –estimated at around 2.5m, but simply that going away from what is basically a one high end model strategy makes sense (well, SoftBank also does Windows Mobile).

Yahoo! goes Google?

It will also be interesting to see if and how SoftBank will port it’s current Yahoo! services to what is a Google phone. Dedicated applications or software updates might address this issue, as well as the S! Mail one, also absent in the iPhone, giving headaches to many users depending on these addresses for services in Japan.

On its press release however, SoftBank touts Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth and other Google services.

Android in Japan

In a saturated market, going Android could open doors to some growth potential. SoftBank was the first operator to earn more revenue from data than voice in 2009 and  going to an app-driven market seems sound.

Smartphone penetration is also very low in Japan compared with other countries.

Remains to be seen how the big three will coordinate -or not- some of their Android efforts. The number 1 operator is gearing up with localized resources, operator-specific APIs and reaching out to local app developers –DoCoMo needs them, as having an app market means easier entry for foreign entities, not having to go through the keitai specs to release services in Japan anymore.

KDDI is going with its au one Market and will link it to the Android market with its own billing platform this summer. It also hinted at a later version of an Android smartphone with Osaifu keitai -RFID payment- integration.

Android in Japan: will it blend?

Image by SoftBank Mobile

Late last month, the Japanese government announced it would start holding hearings about a new law requiring all mobile operators to unlock their mobile phones, loosening up the tie that binds cellphones with their services.

As I expected in my earlier post, carriers are not letting this one pass without a fight.

Hideki Francis Onda reports, in his new CNet blog, that Masayoshi-san, CEO of Japan’s number 2 operator, SoftBank, held a press conference to hammer some points down.

The future of prices

According to him, handsets are bound to become more expensive if unlocked, especially because of a reduction in handset subsidies due to the loss of customer loyalty.

Even in a country that knows a very high customer retention, this threat might find some resonance in a saturated market where sales already saw some disturbances after a new regulation came into force in 2008 providing that subsidies had to be clearly disclosed for the full contract length.

The future of services

More bluntly, Masayoshi implies that the subsidy-free model is the reason why the number 1 handset maker in the world, Nokia, flat-out failed in the country and pulled out.
The incurred money loss would force SoftBank to curb on both services and quality.

This echoes a similar threat made by NTT DoCoMo at the end of March: if the law becomes reality, the company said, special internet and networking services, amongst them the well known i-mode, would be limited.

The mess of frequencies

The different frequencies used by Japan operators are also mentioned by SoftBank’s CEO as a major hurdle that would require investment in order to offer transport between carriers.

The detailed law was not made public yet, but I find it hard to believe operators would actually offer such service if not mandated to. It would obviously shield bankrupt Willcom which uses the incompatible PHS technology from having customers defecting –and, reversing the logic, would lock these customers in for this particular operator.

The silence of handset makers

Recent headlines of the HTC Desire release by SoftBank or Sharp’s ISO1 communicator by KDDI might be showing that Japanese operators are getting into a more internationally compatible foray, but they’re hiding a simple fact: the vast majority of keitais are made by specific manufacturers with specific specs for specific services.

We have yet to hear from them. It would be interesting to see if they’d consider a SIM free Japan as a challenge –a large share of their marketing currently being done by the operators, or as a new opportunity both locally and internationally where they are basically inexistent.

The protection of the iPhone market

Coming back to SoftBank’s case, Hideki Francis makes a good point: the iPhone, successfully sold by SoftBank –estimates put sales at 2.5m, might be an important reason why Masayoshi stepped up his game.

Added to the (somewhat far-fetched) rumor that NTT DoCoMo plans to sell an unlocked micro SIM for the iPad, the thought of having its biggest competitor reinforcing its position and -with recurring chatter of Apple changing its mind on CDMA for Verizon in the US- having KDDI breathing down its neck, is not going down well with SoftBank.

Let’s see how this plays out. This is just getting started.

Image by Danny Choo, CC by nc sa

Live Link 3G J [iTunes Japan only, Free] from Yudo.jp brings free video conferencing to the iPhone in Japan – over the 3G network.

Using Live Link 3G J is simplicity itself: both iPhone uses launch the app, and enter a matching keyword of their own choosing. A few seconds later the screen is divided into two – the top half showing video from the remote iPhone camera, the bottom showing that from the local camera.

Of course there’s one fundamental problem with the system that is unlikely to be fixed anytime soon – the iPhone only has a camera facing away from the user. So whilst you can share what you can see, you can’t easily use it to do video conferencing in the traditional ‘face to face’ sense.

In the current version 1.0.0, users have the ability to mute the mic, pause the outgoing video stream, lower the quality of the video (useful if bandwidth is poor), and choose which audio to listen to (that of the local iPhone or the remote paired iPhone).

Version 2.0.0, announced on the company site on the 20th March but (at the time of writing) yet to surface in the iTunes Japan App Store promises to bring:

  • Reduced latency (delay)
  • Wifi support
  • User profile registration
  • Twitter integration
  • Improved sound and video quality

Importantly, there is also mention of ‘Global Compatibility’, meaning it should eventually become available outside of Japan. The company has also announced a paid version which will allow users to decorate their videos with hand-drawn messages.

Future updates are said to include a friend function and push notifications. Importantly, there is also mention of ‘Global Compatibility’, meaning it should eventually become available outside of Japan.

The ease with which one can connect to other users came as quite a surprise – whilst testing the app for Mobile in Japan with two iPhones, I managed to connect to two complete strangers by entering the keyword ‘aaaaa’. I’m not sure who was more surprised – them or me!

Whilst this app may not be suitable for couples living apart (not being able to turn the iPhones on themselves and still gaze into their partner’s eyes), it could be very useful in situations where you quickly want to show someone something, whilst simultaneously explaining it. Think business plans, or a view of your surroundings when trying to meet someone  in a strange place.

A word of advice though – choose your keywords wisely; you don’t want to be giving people heart attacks as I did tonight.

Someone has uploaded an unofficial demo video of the app here.

Both Softbank and NTT Docomo are fighting for dominance over the newest trend in the Japanese mobile market: edible cellphones.

Docomo started the ball off with the SH-04B model.  This chocolate based flip phone comes in two flavors (chocolate and strawberry) and includes features such as GPS, custom ringtones, and choice of milk chocolate or dark chocolate center.

Softbank of course had to join this lucrative new market with their Jelly Beans 840SH line.  Taking a hint from Harry Potter, these confection phones come in a wide variety of flavors and come with a soft case to keep the candy shell from making your hands too sticky while you take calls.  The phone also come with an OLED eternal sub display and Adobe flash compatible browser.

There will certainly be more to come in the brave new market and it will be interesting to see how long it will take for other markets to catch on.  Still, after the disaster of the Nokia Herring phone, it could be a while before other manufacturers dive into the mix.

The mobile technology scene was rocked today by the announcement that NTT Docomo and Sony Corporation will be merging into the new company OyaG.

Both companies have suffered greatly in recent years due to outdated business practices and failure to motivate Japanese consumers, and high level talks between these two like minded corporations have resulted in what has been referred to as a “Donner Party” solution.

According to OyaG spokesman Uso Bakari, the merger will take a year to finalize and will be complete sometime in early April of 2011.  “We are pleased to announce that there are no plans for layoffs as a result of the merger” reported at a press conference early today. “In fact, we will be needing to hire an additional 2,000 staff to fill a new department tasked with managing all the duplicate departments from both companies.”  In addition, OyaG has released plans for their new 5 trillion yen headquarters building that will start construction in the center of Tokyo Bay on December 21 of this year.

According to Docomo senior vice president Oyaji Kusai, this merger should be a big boost to company morale.  “I am very frustrated with all this talk of new technology.  Every day I get hundreds of emails, and it takes hours for my secretary to print them all out and fax them to my office upstairs.” He laments “How am I supposed to get any meetings done? And this stupid cell phone rings all the time! How do you make it stop ringing? It’s so annoying!”.  There is renewed hope that the joining of like-minded executives from both companies will lead to new plans on how to prevent the spread of new ideas infecting the company.

The challenges of  keeping up with consumer demand have certainly taken their toll on both companies in recent years.  “We are tired of customers telling us what they like.” says a Sony marketing executive who preferred to remain unnamed for this article. “We gave the world the Walkman and Spider Man movies. What more can they expect from us?  People should just buy our products because of loyalty”.

This merger will create one of the largest mobile communications companies in the world and is reminiscent of the bank merger that created Mizuho Bank in Japan in 2002.  At the time the largest financial merger in the history, Mizuho was created with a market cap of 1.3 trillion dollars (currently worth 29 billion).  OyaG will have a market cap of over 100 billion dollars. “I am confident” says Bakari, “we will be able to keep our share value from losing more than 95% in our first three years of operation.”

For the full text of the press release, please check this link.  http://bit.ly/d6siij

With over 150,000 apps now available via the iTunes App Store, original and potentially life-changing offerings are increasingly few and far between.

However, this week a new Tokyo-based developer appeared on the scene, showcasing three new apps at TOKYO’S NEXT MOBILE APP STAR event, held Tuesday at Super Deluxe.

Due to technologistical restrictions, it’s only today that the Professor has been able to publish these videos in the public realm.

Professor Appleton, now based in Japan, has been researching mobile technologies since the 1940s, and his offerings clearly demonstrate the deep understanding he has of the needs of mobile users today.

App 1: Where’s my iPhone Gone?

App 2: Mother Translates Live

App 3: Future Twitter

A few weeks back, friend and fellow iPhone fan @namyhei asked me if I’d like to join her at the Softbank 30th Anniversary Open day, held last Sunday at their headquarters in Shiodome, Tokyo. The idea for the event came from a regular Softbank employee, whom a few months back had tweeted CEO Masayoshi Son (@masason) saying that she wanted Softbank to hold an Open Day, with guests provided with lunch in the company restaurant. Son-san, known for his active Twitter use and at times unconventional leadership, decided to make this a reality. Entry was to be limited to 1000 lucky twitter-lottery winners – of which we were two.

We didn’t really know what to expect, other than that there’d be some kind of Twitter themed talk, and that we’d get a free lunch in the cafe at Softbank HQ, overlooking Hamarikyu Gardens and Tokyo Bay. Of course the hope was that there would also be an important announcement – it seemed like a bit too much trouble to go to for just some kind of glorified tweetup.

Four-legged mascot

Having arrived fashionably late so as to miss the morning filler-programs (iPhone app presentations featuring a lot of apps we’d seen before… and as we later learned, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son mingling with the guests >< ), we took our seats in the auditorium, ready for the Main Event.

Things got underway at 2pm, with the Softbank dog, Otoosan (the ‘father’ of the Softbank family as seen in commercials, and probably the most famous living dog in Japan), making his appearance on stage, led by Dante Carver, the New Yorker who plays the brother in the family. Aside from generating a lot of excitement amongst Otosan fans in the room, they also demonstrated how we should clap for the cameras, and encouraged us to make use of the free wifi network, which by this time was totally crippled as 2000 people tried to simultaneously tweet pictures of the four-legged star on stage.

Soon after, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son took to the stage, and round one commenced – a Twitter discussion with Twitter celebs @nobi, @knnKanda and @matsuyou. They all looked just like their avatars.

The conversations that followed were wonderful, with all speakers telling personal stories of how Twitter had affected their lives – stories that the majority of people in the audience (including us) could relate to, having experienced similar situations themselves.

Twitter guests

The event organisers had also arranged for several of Son’s followers to attend and tell their stories. The first was a 16 year old boy from Kyushu – one of the very few people whom the CEO follows. Son explained his reason for this: many years ago, he’d been a school boy in the same area, and he wanted to get a glympse into his past life, and to see how things had changed. The boy was completely unfazed by being in the spotlight, and gave a memorable little speech, which almost brought tears to our eyes!

Following that was a woman who’d made a cookie that looked just like an iPhone – there had been some back and forth between her and Son after she’d sent him a picture of it via Twitter; this then led to her presenting Son with his very own – he was delighted! (see 20:30 in the video above)

The final guest was a Korean follower of Son’s, who used Google Translate to read his tweets – an example of the ‘borderless’ nature of Twitter.

Free in-home Femto-cell access points

Son used the opportunity to address the most common criticism that he receives – poor coverage. He noted that they had inherited a pretty poor network from vodafone, and that they were only 1% behind the other major mobile providers with 98% coverage (not that you’d think so as a user!). However, they weren’t being complacent, and 2010 would see a large increase in the number of transmitters. But he went further than that, announcing free Femto-cell access points (mobile phone transmitter) & dedicated ADSL line in homes where their signal didn’t reach (see 48:30). Furthermore, they’d provide free wifi routers to restaurants, bars etc for use by customers with Softbank handsets.

HTC Desire

As covered in this earlier article, Son went on to announce the HTC Desire running Android 2.1, making sure to point out just how superior it was to models available on other networks.

The 81yr old politician who stole the show

Next up on stage was someone we weren’t expecting at all – the 81 year old politician Koichi Hamada, (@555hamako), who with over 133,000 followers has become something of a Twitter Celebrity. In an inspired PR move, a Softbank counter was wheeled on, staffed by the girl who appeared alongside SMAP in a recent commercial. It was pretty comical watching Hamada read through the terms of the White Plan (Softbank’s standard phone plan), before signing it, and being handed his first iPhone (see 1:00:00).

Hamada was not one to be pushed around though, and when it came time for him to leave the stage, he remained where he was, leaning on his cane, until finally allowed to sing a traditional Japanese song from the enka genre! (1:20:00).

Softbank & Ustream Partnership

The final announcement for the day was that of three brand new Ustream studios for free, public use. The first opened that day at Softbank HQ (where DJ Taro and Sascha were keeping things rolling – the other two will be opening soon in the Softbank Shibuya branch and Shidax Building [English press release]).

In the final section of the presentation, Son reappeared dressed in period costume in reference to Sakamoto Ryoma, the drama about whom Son is a big fan of. There followed more discussion, and a prize giveaway – although we skipped that in order to get our free lunch before the rush.

The party continued in the restaurant with DJ Taro and Sascha presenting, interviewing and on the decks for some time. Being a Ustream fan I was entranced by the bank of monitors used to mix and output the final stream – this is something I have to try myself!

Heading home at the end of the day I couldn’t help but think about what a great PR event it had been. I’d been bribed with a free lunch overlooking Tokyo Bay & both a chocolate and cuddly-toy version of Otosan, I’d been enchanted by the charisma and ‘normalness’ of the richest man in Japan, I’d been starstruck by a bunch of Twitter celebs, entertained by an enka-singing politician, and entertained by two of Tokyo’s best-known DJs.

The Softbank Open Day shifted my attitude towards the company to a certain extent. I feel more inclined to forgive them their faults (crap coverage, poor in-store customer service), and instead see them as a company breaking the typical Japanese mould and doing things in a more open, human way.

Son san is now at the core of this image I have of the company (as opposed to the queue at my local branch). By holding imaginative, original and entertaining events such as this (and then going on to give memorable live-streamed speeches such as this one to new employees) I think Son stands a good chance of keeping my business for life. And based on how much my phone bill is each month, that’s something worth fighting for!