Some of you might have noticed the temporary new banner on the right column of this website. SXJapan, what is that?

Many of you might know my passion about Japan and its related technologies, startups and innovations. Lots can be said. Lots can be admired. Lots can be criticized. In the end, the market stays an amazingly interesting one, in terms of lessons than can be learned.

Now, since I’m traveling quite a bit, I see that many people have a fascination for Japan but don’t know much -not to say nothing at all- about the country. The conversations are usually limited to the usual basic comments and preconceptions in the market. Like me a few years ago. I was totally clueless, locked in my vague assumptions.

Having attended my first South By SouthWest (SXSW) Interactive last year, one of the biggest technology conference in the world -the one that saw the rise of the likes of Twitter or Foursquare-, I thought that having a panel focused on Japan would be more than appropriate.
Mobile is surely one of the major trend that Japan experienced before any other country in the world. The lead in technologies might be dwindling to some eyes, but the relative shifts currently experienced, especially in the smartphone field -mostly foreign ones- do put the market in a new light. It is one of the topic that I propose to cover in mid-March 2011.

Here’s what I submitted -written in under 5 minutes as I was in a hurry, so please bear with the generalities:

Japan remains a big question mark. Sometimes qualified as strange, sometimes thought as very innovative, often unknown to many. Can you name one Japanese startup? Can you name one Japanese web service that you use? Do you know Facebook is almost inexistent there? With the recent successes of Twitter (almost 20% of worldwide tweets are in Japanese), the iPhone (shaking a very insular mobile market), is Japan opening up to the US and the world? Similarly, with Rakuten, the Japanese eBay, acquiring Buy.com & opening offices in the US, but also entering China and elsewhere, are we witnessing a new era of Japanese companies’ expansion? Japan remains a land of opportunities. A country where innovative models are popping up every day. Let’s learn about Japan.

SXSW asks people to submit their ideas for panels, then a committee choses those deemed interesting enough to go to the next stage. I was lucky enough to see my panel selected. What is the next stage? A voting by the general public. You, in short.

So, yeah, I’m fishing for your votes.

To better understand what I’m doing here, I’ve created a mini-site explaining, both in Japanese and English: SXJapan.com [Twitter / Facebook]

It includes information on how to vote (yes, that does require registration, but it’s both simple and spam-free). If you feel like it, you can even vote directly by going to the official panel page.

So, I know, it’s quite egocentric to believe that you might be interested in voting for a conference you might not even attend. And that, in some ways, I’d be personally put in the spotlight by leading its organization.

I’m aware of those shortcomings and I’ll try to be as open as possible in terms of what comes out of it.

I don’t know what liberty the SXSW committee will give me on the choice of the panelists. I want to put the spotlight on them. I want to get at least two Japanese in there, since it shouldn’t be a gaijin thing or whatever, but it will all depend on who actually makes it there.

I’ll also try to organize a social -and informal- gathering of those making it to Austin from Japan next March. Mixed with those who have a genuine interest in the market or have activities in it. No idea how and when for now, I’ll readily admit it.

I would like to thank Masato Kogure for blogging it in Japanese about it and those of you who have already tweeted it out, you know who you are.

Any feedback -and criticism- would actually be appreciated. There are ideas or topics I might not think about and even if the panel schedule will limit the coverage, I’m hoping to be as thorough as possible. Or you feel I’m just a douche and you’d like to tell it to me.

There are less than three days to vote.

I’m genuinely appreciative of anyone who’ll make the effort. Thank you.

CEO Sanda had been talking about microSIM since last April & had revealed such a chip was in the work last May. The day has come: mobile virtual network operator b-mobile has announced earlier today it was about to release a microSIM for unlocked iPhone 4 in Japan.

Yes, for any unlocked iPhone 4.

And, well, that would also likely work with an unlocked iPad.

Unlocked. Mmh. Interesting. The problem is that in Japan, both the iPhone and the iPad are locked with SoftBank.

No matter the recent debate about a general SIM unlock in the country, SoftBank won’t bulge. There’s no way you can legally unlock your iPhone in Japan.

Some countries mandate operator to factory unlock (via an Apple software) the device after the end of the contract or after a specified period of time (usually 12 month). Nice, heh? But it’s just not the case in Japan.

So, honestly, what type of market is b-mobile after in all this iPhone envy craze?

First idea that comes to mind, the unofficially unlocked iPhone. Since the handset is only sold through Softbank and not Apple, the market remains tiny. The vast majority of people do not go and hack their iPhones, don’t delude yourselves. Plus, since they’re already paying for a full 24 months contract which started two months ago at the earliest, why would they go fishing for another contract before 2012? And, oh, the practice is illegal in Japan.

Inbound business (and geek) travelers? Unlikely. The information site b-mobile provides is in Japanese only and it wouldn’t, again, be a very interesting market. Not mentioning that it’s only a matter of time until SoftBank starts renting microSIM for those iPhone tourist addicts (see Pietro’s excellent summary of options if you’re travelling to Japan).

So what then? The obvious. Imported iPhones and iPads. Still, there can’t be a vast amount of the former, since it was just released and there was no microSIM available until now in Japan. Note that SoftBank won’t sell SIM-only contracts.
There might be a tad more of imported iPads. Before the Japan launch, you could see a reasonably good number of devices in the hands of Tokyoites (and in some shops in Akihabara with a crazy markup, 20% more expensive than those grey imports in Singapore)

But there too, there’s the fact that it’s illegal. Imports do not come with the technical seal of approval of the ministry of communications. You know, that little printed T on the back of your device. [NB: read the Update at the end of this post]
Not that I see this regulation being enforced anyway, but b-mobile is very aware of it, trust me. Sanda kinda address the issue in this morning’s paper, implying Apple could service imported material. His point: SoftBank has no exclusivity on the sale of Apple products and he’s willing to work with independent importers.

Now, I might be a little harsh on my view there. b-mobile is a small player that doesn’t have to invest too much in equipment since it uses DoCoMo’s network. It doesn’t need to have a very big market to make some interesting profits.

The micro SIM itself is free. It will cost you JPY 3,785 per month (roughly USD 44) or JPY 2,980 per month for data only (presumably for your iPad, and that’s approx. USD 35). You can pre-reserve it here.

[UPDATE, August 6, 2010, 9pm JST] Colm correctly points out, in the comments, that the regulation concerning the technical conformity certification -what I called the little T in my article, for the sake of expediency- are due to be modified. Last March, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced that the display of that little T (the certification mark) could be now documented either by printing it on the device itself or through the screen. Check your iPhone 3GS, 4 or iPad, under Settings -> General -> About -> Regulatory and you’ll see a list of certification icons. While I’m under the impression that this modification of the law is not in force yet, it renders my certification point kinda moot, at least in the very near future if no strong opposition is raised. Sorry for my hastiness. It hence now all boils down to the nature of the exclusive deal between Apple and Softbank. Its exact dispositions are unknown, besides that iPhones are not sold by Apple in Japan, but only through the operator. Will “parallel” importers be able to find solid channels for mass imports? Will Apple Japan accept to repair imported iPhones? Will it be legally bound to? The international warranty should apply, but no one is certain. We’ll know soon enough.

To finish with today’s stories about DoCoMo and its smartphone strategy, here’s an interesting poll that MMD Lab ran a few days ago.

Its satisfaction index on mobile carriers is quite revealing. DoCoMo retains the highest percentage of happy customers in terms of cell coverage quality. Almost 85% of satisfied subscribers, DoCoMo can brag about it. KDDI is very close, but SoftBank gets a paltry 52%. If you break down the number and keep only the very satisfied customers, DoCoMo has 26%, just behind KDDI. Softbank is again third. And far. 4.8%. Ouch.

For the design of handsets, you reverse the order. SoftBank gets more than 80% of satisfied subscribers, with DoCoMo just behind at 78.5% and KDDI at roughly 76%. The survey even asked if the clients were happy with their camera. While such a question sounds silly with the staggering number of different phone line-ups, here are the results: KDDI customers are satisfied at 71.2%, DoCoMo at 69.5% and Softbank at 63.2%. Not very significant.

Now, the study gets more interesting since it asked what people would do when the SIM unlock guidelines become reality. Will they switch? The status quo is favored by 30% of those interviewed. Loyalty is a big thing in Japan. Inertia is big worldwide. Remarkably though, the wish of 20% of customers surveyed is to be able to keep their current carrier with the iPhone. That answer, in second place, shows the big draw Apple’s phone gets in Japan. And why Masayoshi, Softbank CEO, is willing to fight to keep it exclusive -going as far as locking its cousin, the iPad.

And, yes, if you break down those numbers per carrier, you get 25% of DoCoMo customers who show iPhone envy. Lots of people would love the iPhone on DoCoMo in other words, if you extrapolate the numbers, that is.

We kinda knew that already, it’s only a survey, but still. It fuels right into DoCoMo current strategy: eyes on the iPad -getting the iPhone is a rumor similar to Verizon or T-Mobile stealing the thunder from AT&T in the US- and the ramping up of its smartphone line-up.

The survey was taken between July 16 and 21 with 2176 interviewees. No details on the statistical method.

No wonder DoCoMo is raising its stakes in its smartphone strategy, it sold a solid 300,000 Sony Ericsson Xperias since its launch last April.

For a country that was stranger to any type of smartphones until recently, this comes as a wake-up call. Well, the wake-up call might have been the iPhone launch by rival SoftBank two years ago -it commanded a staggering 72% of smartphone sales last March- but it shows that there’s room for growth in a massively saturated cellphone market.

The operator will increase supply by 200,000 units to keep up with the demand and promises to add more features within the year to satisfy customer -and maybe to keep up with Japan’s habit of adding features all the time.

It has also beefed up its future smartphone line-up from 5 to 7 models, including the Android-based Samsung Galaxy S, which might very well be the flagship model along with one unnamed Blackberry handset. Interestingly, one of the models might be a tablet phone …a reply to the iPad . Of sorts, that latter one not having any phone capability. Chief Executive Ryuji Yamada hinted at talks with the South Korean handset maker.

It would make sense: along with a future app store, DoCoMo has announced an e-book initiative for feature phones that would fit with a tablet strategy. Samsung is on board, along with NEC and LG. An answer not only to Softbank’s Viewn iPad initiative, but also to rival KDDI’s partnership with Sony, Toppan Printing and Asahi.

The operator suffered some frustration after Apple and Softbank locked the iPad nation-wide, forcing it to abandon plans of selling data plans for the device. Softbank has also kept a lead in adding new subscribers almost every month since the iPhone arrival. In June, it added almost 230,000 new customers -certainly helped by the iPhone4 launch-, while DoCoMo only added 164,600 -and KDDI less than 64,000. To be fair, DoCoMo’s cancellation rate is kinda low, so there’s no threat to its kingdom.

DoCoMo hopes to reach a target of 1 million smartphones sold by year’s end. With 57m customers on its database, I guess it’s realistic.

DoCoMo is on a smartphone elliptical these days.

Yesterday, the largest Japanese operator opened a private lounge dedicated to smartphones only [press release in Japanese].

Yes, you read that right, no dumb phones, no waterproof pink phones, just smartphones. And like any proper airport business lounge that offers only real Champagne, there will be no plastic dummies, only the real stuff for the visitors to experience. And the latest applications, whether on WinPhone, BlackBerry or Android, to test and compare.

Dedicated consultants, scheduled talks, repairs. There are no Geniuses and it’s not Ginza, but it’s damn close to the Apple Store experience. If DoCoMo delivers -meaning they have great staff in the shop-, they might have a winning strategy on their hands. The choice of the Marunouchi, the commercial district close to the Imperial Palace and the main Tokyo station, seems to indicate that the operator is aiming at both a high-end and business demographic.

No word if DoCoMo plans to expand its line of smartphone lounges in the more trendy -and youngish- districts of Shibuya and Harajuku/Omotesando. With the BlackBerry being a hit amongst teenagers in the UK, it should think about it however.

But if you’re in town tomorrow, there’s Ai Tominaga, Vogue and Elle award winning model, showing up. That’s hip and sexy.

Sharp, the biggest mobile phone manufacturer in Japan, is set to launch a 3D smartphone later this year.

3D? Aren’t the smartphones in three dimensions already? Well, it’s the display that will show images in 3D. You know, that new craze all the movie & consumer electronics industry players talk about -trust me, I was a CEATEC Tokyo last year and everyone seemed to wear dizzy glasses.

The technology supposedly lets people see the multiple dimensions without those nerd-looking glasses, but it remains to be seen -in 3D?- if it will let us watch without keeping a certain distance and specific angle like similar already existing tech.

I’m not so sure. Last April in Tokyo, the company presented a multi-mode 2D-3D LCD screen that required not to move your head (or your hand) too much. Better not drink too much before playing with 3D.

But it might support touch, since that same LCD was a touchscreen. That would make sense for a smartphone.

The most talked-about spec is the potential inclusion of a camera able to take 3D imagery. Sharp is leaking samples of a 3D-capable HD camera module these days with mass production set to start any time now, so it’s only obvious geek bloggers are all sweaty about sharing their shiny LEGO Millenium Falcons with their friends.

Now, Sharp isn’t very well known for its smartphone line. But with the iPhone, the Android and DoCoMo hinting at more than 300,000 smartphones sold during the last quarter -most of them Xperias, it was only a matter of time until the company started to realign. It is unknown what OS it will run, but it should be noted that Sharp has recently released a giant Android thing, the IS01 (that’s for KDDI, it’s superbly called Lynx SH-10B on DoCoMo) -well, and an iPad non-killer running Linux.

The unnamed device will be a Japan-only offering, if you want my 2 cents. Sharp might be the biggest player here but has so far failed at any international ventures –Kin, anyone?

Image credit: DigInfo.tv [Sharp 3D LCD video]

I don’t know if DoCoMo had to answer to Softbank’s recent offer, but the number 1 operator in Japan is finally rolling out a fixed-rate roaming data plan for its subscribers (here’s the press release in Japanese).

The plan, to be available on September 1, will have a two-phase roll-out.

Up to March 31, the fixed-rate amount will be set at a daily JPY 1,480 (roughly USD 17), at JPY 0.2 per packet for non i-mode data and at a fixed rate of JPY 50 for 50 packets for i-mode data (JPY 0.2 per packet after that threshold).

On April 1, 2011, a different two-tier pricing model will be introduced. The previous plan stays the same, but will cost JPY 1,980 (roughly USD 23) up to 200,000 packets. After that limit is triggered, the plan rises to JPY 2,980 (roughly USD 34), but, this time, with no differenciation between i-mode and non i-mode data, all packets being set up a JPY 0.2.

Yeah. Not the most crystal clear pricing model, I know.

The plan will initially be available for 24 territories:

  • United States, incl. HI, AK (AT&T / Cingular)
  • Puerto Rico (AT&T / Cingular)
  • Virgin Islands (AT&T / Cingular)
  • South Korea (KT / KTF)
  • Taiwan (FET)
  • China (UNICOM / CU-GSM)
  • Hong Kong (3 -2G- 3HK)
  • India (CellOne DOLPHIN)
  • Indonesia (INDOSAT)
  • Singapore (STARHUB)
  • Thailand (TRUE)
  • Philippines (SMART)
  • Australia (OPTUS)
  • Ireland (O2)
  • United Kingdom (O2)
  • Austria (TMA)
  • Canary Islands (movistar)
  • Spain (movistar)
  • Czech Republic (O2 / ET)
  • Germany (T-Mobile)
  • France (Bouygues Telecom)
  • Monaco (Bouygues Telecom)

That’s a tad less than what Softbank covers in its initial offering (and, well, some territories seem to have been added just for the sake of adding territories…)

Subscribers who are using the current overseas data plans won’t lose their free included minutes (if they have some). They’ll have a relief period until December 1.

The plan bears some similarity with Softbank’s one. Again, doesn’t come cheap, but data roaming isn’t cheap anywhere (I call that a big scam, but that’s just me). It will surely interest business travelers and those twitter-addicted geeks.

Check with your local DoCoMo retailer to learn if you can add this plan to your current one and let us know what you think in the comments below.