I’m a bit wishy washy about the title of this article as the iPad has had it’s US launch, but it hasn’t launched in Japan (or anywhere else in the world) yet, and we are still a weeks away from Apple’s “magic” device arriving on our shores officially.

Through the efforts of great friends at Rinkya (a must use service for non-Japan based people to purchase hard to find Japanese goods), I was able to procure a 16GB wi-fi iPad just a couple days after the US launch.  I’ve had it for several weeks now and have been trying to figure out what the iPad is and what it isn’t, and most importantly, is it worth getting one.  After spending many hours with the device (it has hardly left my sight since I first got my hands on it), I can confidently say “maybe”.

What the iPad is:

The iPad of course is the new tablet device released by Apple to fill the void between the mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPod Touch, and the laptop Macbook line.  With a 9.7 inch capacitive resistant, LED backlit screen, the iPad is much more than just a “big iPod touch”.
While it runs a similar OS to the iPhone and iPod Touch, the iPad’s larger screen makes a world of difference to the overall experience.  Remember, the iPhone’s OS has been  billed by Apple as a full (albeit customized) version of OSX, so the new 3.2 OS adds support for 1024×768 pixel screens, a Safari browser much closer to the desktop version with support for html5, and a new category of iPad only applications which are optimized for the larger screen and more powerful device.
For over a year I have dragged a MacBook Air around with me as my mobile office solution.  It’s been great and I love the design and slim design of the Air, but with the iPad I have been able to knock off about half of the weight.  For a setup that I usually just carry around with me in case I want to get some productivity out of a hour in-between appointments, this has been great on my shoulder.  Throw in a small stand and an Apple bluetooth keyboard and I have pretty much everything I need while on the run.  A powerful web browser, word processor (I am using the iPad only Pages app to write this), and apps that cover my major productivity needs, NewsRack for Google Reader RSS feeds, Twittelator for iPad for twitter, and LogMeIn Ignition for when I need to access my more powerful system at home.  Note that I do more complicated work at home on a full desktop system, such as anything multi-media related or data management tasks.
In particular, I really like using the Safari browser and am starting to feel that touch is the killer app for browsing.  The in-line video support is very impressive and the A4 processor of the iPad seems to handle high quality video without even breaking a sweat.  I now feel pity for anyone watching TV on the sofa who does not have an iPad within reach.

What the iPad is not:

Well, for starters, the iPad is not small or light.  While it is quite thin, the iPad is still about as large and heavy as a hardback book.  This is not a mobile device that you carry with you all the time, but instead is more of a ultralight laptop or netbook.  In fact I often find myself typing on the iPad at the same time as I am checking up on things with my iPhone.  It’s a bit too heavy to pull out while I am walking around the streets of Tokyo and feels quite unwieldy when I try to use it while standing on the subway.
But it’s not quite a computer either.  It’s certainly more limited than a laptop computer.  No open file area I can use freely, means I have to rely on apps to take care of any complicated tasks I want to do via the iPad.  I like how it takes up much less table space when I want to work in a Starbucks, however, even with an external keyboard.  And the 10 hours of battery life (about what I have experienced even with wi-fi on) is miles better than my Air was capable of.

What about eBooks?

When I first saw the demo of the ipad I declared Amazon was doomed.  I now feel that sentiment was very premature.  Comparing the iPad to a Kindle2 is pretty much impossible.  The iPad looks gorgeous and offers color, backlit screen, animation, and tons of other features to boot.  But compared to the Kindle it weighs a ton.  The backlit screen is hard on the eyes in completely dark room and I just can’t see that reading on the iPad for hours on end will be either comfortable or good for your optical health.
The Kindle on the other hand has a much smaller screen, relies completely on available light, has  limited expandability and a prehistoric interface when compared to the iPad.  However with a weight only a fraction of the iPad it’s much easier to sit by the pool for a few hours catching up on a good trashy novel (yeah, I know. I never do this either, but I think I read a book where people do it).  The e-Ink technology, while still very limited compared to full displays, still gives the Kindle a battery life that makes even the iPad green with envy.  Simply put, the Kindle is a great single purpose ebook reader, the iPad is a much more powerful, and complicated computing device.

My suggestion, get both :)
If anything, I think that Amazon will come out a big winner here.  The Kindle App for iPad is great and in fact has some features that even the iBook app can’t match such as whipersync, allowing me to read one book on my Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Mac, and PC and have them all stay in sync so I never lose my place even when I swap devices.  While Kindle may lose some hardware sales to people who will stick to just the iPad, I think Amazon should see even better book sales (the Kindle store has much better selection) and I can see some people buying from the Kindle store now without even owning a Kindle.


To 3G or not to 3G

The US has just seen the launch of the 3G version of the iPad, and so far, the reviews are not stellar.  Basically, the 3G version only adds cellular wireless capability, giving the iPad the same data capability as the iPhone.  I am very amused by all the people who expected that the somehow the iPad would be exempted from all the restrictions.
When using the iPhone over 3G network, there are download caps, streaming video is restricted to low bandwidth resolutions and VOIP applications are for the most part unavailable.  Of course the iPad suffers the same limitations, and while high resolution video from YouTube on the iPad over wi-fi networks is amazing, I can imagine the disappointment of the blocky, rough 3G throttled version.
I have been using my iPad with an EMobile Pocket Wifi portable router, which has for the most part performed like a champ.  I can get data access for my iPad wherever I go, giving me pretty much the exact same functionality as a 3G version, with the bonus of a faster upload speed and ability to connect the internet to another four devices.  One problem I have noticed is that the iPad drains the battery on my portable router much faster that I have experienced in the past.  I think this may be due to the iPad forcing the connection to stay active, even when the device is in sleep mode, but need to do a bit more testing to confirm.  As such I had to pick up a spare battery for the Pocket Wifi to ensure I can keep the iPad properly fed and happy.
I can see the benefit of the 3G connection, but am not convinced that the additional monthly bill will be worth it for me as I have no plans to drop the EMobile.  And with still no official launch date in Japan (announcement expected on May 10), and no idea what kind of pricing plans we will see here, It’s still a very big question mark.  Also i am not in love with the big black plastic bar across the top side of the iPad 3G.  Love the clean back of the wi-fi version.

So is the iPad for you?

Well, for now, if you have to ask the question, probably not.  The people getting iPads right now are die-hard Apple fans, developers, journalists, and people with too much money (no comment on which categorie(s) might apply to me).
The iPad will continue to develop it’s own ecosystem, and soon we’ll see a pattern of what type of people get what kind of benefits from this new device.  But for the most part, the iPad does not replace any mainstream device.  And since it does not rely replace anything, it’s hard to make the case that it is necessary for anyone.  What we need to see is for the iPad to develop a new niche for casual computing hereto unseen similar to the iPhone revolution.  Judging from the response I have seen from Japanese consumers getting their first touch experience with the iPad, I think there are a lot of reasons for Apple to be optimistic about their chances here.

Follow our complete iPad landing in Japan coverage

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.

So it’s been a couple of months since the Nexus One was released to select markets.  Of course I am getting used to “select” markets not including Japan.

So far, Android based phones in Japan have been pretty much a dud.  Currently only one official Android phone is on the market here, the “Hero” based HT-03A from Docomo.  An interesting move by Google considering Docomo’s established history of hating everything smartphone.  True to form, Docomo launched the HT-03A without paid app support in the marketplace and a confusing marketing campaign that punished anyone foolish enough to express interest to a salesperson.

So the absence of the Nexus One in Japan is not by any means a shock.  Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t fans here.  In fact, the development community behind Android is very active and Japanese developed applications are a substantial presence on the Android marketplace.  So it goes without saying that there are many in Japan who would like to get their hands on the flagship Google phone.  Google’s direct sales model does make this difficult of course.  Still there are plenty of Ebay resellers and other more creative methods to get a Nexus One smuggled over the border.

In spite of the danger, Mobile in Japan contracted a brave soul to sneak in some contraband so we could goof off playing with yet another toy evaluate the handset for our readers.  We will be posting reviews of the phone as well as more Android apps in the future, but first things first, we needed to bling up the phone.

In spite of it’s illegal alien status here in Japan, many have braved the world of gray market importing, and for those who have, there is one destination. Mobile Plaza.  This shop in the outskirts of Akihabara is the hook up spot for everything mobile and import.  Here you can find phones and accessories most Japanese consumers have heard of only in legend.  Need a battery for a Nokia E71? or a replacement battery door for your Blackberry 9700?  This is your one-stop shop.

I swung by to see what was available in Nexus One and was not disappointed.  Nexus One is definitely hot now, as there were whole sections devoted to cases, screen protectors and other accessories.  Not only that, but right next to the Motorola Milestone (Droid) in the showcase beneath the register was a small placard with “Nexus One” scribbled on it.  For the faint of heart not wanting to risk shady Ebay dealers, you can buy one here special order (usually requires about 2 weeks).

Once my Nexus One was all protected, I could play around freely.  Well, not really freely.  We still had to work out how to get it on a network.

The easiest way of course is just to pop in a Docomo SIM card.  Preferably one set up with a high data plan.  After that, the setup is basically the same as the HT-03A.  I gave up my last Docomo SIM card last year however, and am in no hurry to get another one.  So in goes my Softbank iPhone (Black) SIM.  Here things get a bit dicey.  There are plenty of resources on the internet guiding you to the network setting to get an unlocked phone working on SoftBank’s iPhone network.  While I won’t spill it here, a resourceful Google search will get you there.  But be warned, there are no guarantees this will work, and if it does, it puts you in violation of your user agreement.  This means that SoftBank does not have to apply the unlimited data discount on your plan which could lead to significant (as in astronomical) data charges.  Some users seem to be getting by fine, but just remember, you do this at your own risk.

One significant development has been that when we first got the Nexus One, there were of course no paid apps in the Marketplace.  While Docomo finally got around to opening up the service in Japan late last year, this appears to be a carrier based configuration, so the only way to access the paid apps was to pop in a Docomo SIM card, even when downloading over wifi.  But all that changed a couple of weeks ago.  All of a sudden, paid apps were visible in spite of the SoftBank SIM in the phone.  Does this tease a possible Android phone heading to Softbank in the near future?  Maybe. (well, not maybe. Definitely. Softbank has already announced plans to release an Android phone in Japan, but this move might mean we will see it very soon indeed).

So now we are (for the most part) happily playing around with the Nexus One.  How many of you are interested in Android in Japan?  Let us know in the comments if you have any questions or would like us to test out anything on the phone here and we’ll follow in up in future posts.

ekotan_0983

Having been consistently disappointed by voice recognition apps in the past, it was with some scepticism that I installed Koetan Tokyo from Traffic Gate, Ltd.

[iTunes, Free]

Using it is very simple. You can ignore all the Japanese.

Image 1

- Tap the big black button in the middle.
- Say the name of your starting station. Pause a moment. Say the name of your destination station.
- Add the word “まで” (ma-de = ‘to’).
- Press the button in the middle again.

The app will now connect and search for your route (this only takes a few seconds. Of course you must have a data connection).

ekotan_0984

Image 2
The results screen shows several results, one of which is bound to match yours. Not once has it failed to place my  route at the top of the list. As you can see, it’s in English and Japanese, so this is a great way to see how station names are written in Japanese too.

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Image 3
Having selected your route, the detailed results page appears. Yes, it’s all in Japanese, but even if you don’t read Japanese you can see all the important info, including time taken, cost and the number of changes. The route is diplayed below.

Click on the car / map option (地図によるルート)to see the route on the apps built-in map (image 4).

koetan_0986

You can then click on マップ (top right) to view the map in the iPhone’s native Google Maps app (image 5).

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Like many of these kinds of navigation apps (such as the Tokyo Metro App), Koetan! does not provide you with real-time timetable information – it’ll just give you the route and time it’ll take, so if you need precise timings you’ll still need an app such as Ekitan (Japanese only).

Another limitation is the fact that it only covers Tokyo (no Saitama, no Chiba etc) – no doubt this limitation is one reason it’s so accurate in terms of voice recognition, as there’s not all that much for the software to choose from.

However, this app is a fantastic way to quickly get this basic info without having to type in the station names, which is often the thing that causes the most problems for non-Japanese speakers.