By Irene Kunii Much has been written about the coming Third Generation, or 3G, cellular systems that promise speedier connections, Web-on-the-go, and phone audio that sounds too good to be true. In the 3G future, your handset -- or rather the application it comes with -- will be able to keep track of your favorite stocks, reserve plane seats, and find shopping bargains for you. It'll even flag down your friends if they happen to be in the vicinity.
Sound like a lot of hype? Not if you happen to live in Japan, the testing ground for the latest wireless services and applications. Officially, the 3G age dawns here in late May, when NTT DoCoMo, the dominant mobile carrier, begins rolling out its new service. Full implementation will take several years. But since millions of Japanese already are zapping photos around the Net and booking restaurants on their i-mode, or Net-enabled phones, DoCoMo has come out recently with a transitional product to keep them happy until 3G becomes practical.
With the company's 503i series of Java-equipped handsets, transmission speed is still the same pokey i-mode pace of 9.6 kilobits per second. But thanks to Java, wireless applications are more dynamic and interactive. To give you an idea of the latest in Japanese handset wizardry, I decided to give the 503i a whirl.
PAC MAN IS BACK. I have to admit I've never been a fan of electronic games. I'll indulge in the occasional arcade game, and sometimes I'll test new video-game software to write a review. But I've rarely had the patience, or skill, to make it to the finish. Games on my old i-mode cell phone? Never! The basic graphics are so unappealing and the content -- well, it's O.K. if you're a doofus.
But I find myself enjoying a game I've downloaded to this Java handset: It's Pac Man, the simple, mazelike game that was the craze in Stone Age arcades. The color graphics are surprisingly crisp, though not a match for Nintendo's new Game Boy Advance, a 32-bit handheld device that kids are pining for. Still, I like the fact that I can choose to play the downloaded game after storing it on my phone, or go online and compete for the highest score of the day across all of Japan.
With my old handset, I could already read the news online, check stock quotes, download stick-character games, and send passable images of my dogs to my friends. I can still do that with the 503i if I log on to any of the 40,000 or so small-screen sites formatted for DoCoMo's i-mode users here in Japan. But with this new set, I can also log on to so-called iappli sites geared specifically for Java users.
CHARTING STOCKS. In the months ahead, as more services are rolled out, I'll be able instruct my phone to locate a nearby sushi shop or a Starbucks coffee shop. So I decided to try out an iappli site called kabu.com (stocks.com), which provides the latest market information. Usually it costs $2.50 per month, but I can sample parts of the service for free. You can click on graphs and download a chart that displays, in several hues, both the fluctuation of Tokyo stock prices and volumes traded over the past few days. Got to say it: I was impressed.
Then I checked out a new site called iMapFan that's also free, for the time being. I typed in Meguro (the area in Tokyo where I live) and clicked on the Japanese word for "station." Up pops a detailed map pinpointing the Meguro rail and subway station and the primary landmarks within a 500-meter (547-yard) radius. By maneuvering the phone's tiny cursor, I can scan up, down, and sideways to view adjacent areas. I can also do a search based on an address or postal code. This could prove handy when I'm struggling to find some hard-to-locate office, so I bookmark the site.
Enough of the serious stuff. These new Java wonders come with polyphonic sound, so I tune into a music site geared for Java users, register with Dokokara Joy (Joy From Anywhere), and download the melody Can You Keep a Secret?, based on the song by Japanese pop idol Hikaru Utada. The sound is a bit twangy but surprisingly good, considering that it's emanating from a palm-sized, 90-gram (3-ounce) cell phone. If you're so inclined, you can download the lyrics and croon away. But for the most part, these melodies are used to replace the ringing tone on the handset.
ONE DRAWBACK. I-mode phones were reasonably sophisticated before the addition of Java. Now they're downright irresistible. The only drawback is price: The four models in the 503i series range from $280 to $350. Still, that isn't outrageous in Japan, where any new handset costs a lot at first.
Besides improved functions and graphic capabilities, Java makes possible more efficient data downloading from DoCoMo's i-mode network, which is packet-switched and moves bits and bytes in bundles. That translates into lower costs and is good news for heavy users like myself. I'm constantly accessing news sites, downloading data-heavy clips -- and running up monthly phone bills of $100 or more. Subscribers pay $2.50 a month for the i-mode service, plus packet-data transmission charges (for downloading and sending data). To access each site on the i-mode official menu, you also have to pay from 85 cents to $2.50 a month.
Right now, only about 30 iappli sites exist. Since the service is so new, content providers are still scrambling to design offerings optimized for it. In the near future, they plan to roll out services that will send information, such as weather forecasts, to users based on where they are.
CONTENT CONSTRAINTS. One of the main drawbacks of these first-version handsets is that the hardware hasn't yet been designed to optimize Java. As a result, developers face constraints, such as limiting the size of their features to 10 kilobytes. "You have to be able to write compact programs," says Kazutomo Hori, president of mobile-content provider Cybird Co. So it'll be some time before users are playing sophisticated fighting or racing games on their handsets.
Even so, I'm ready to trade in my old phone for one of the new Java models. I had planned to wait and buy one of the first 3G phones later this year. A main attraction of the service will be its improved transmission speed of 64 kilobits per second -- about six times faster than the current 2G system. But it's a fact that the 3G service will be pricey in the beginning and geared toward business users and not consumers. Also, it'll take a while to build a decent lineup of 3G content sites. So, as I bide my time, one of these slower but versatile Java i-mode phones should do nicely. Kunii is Tokyo-based correspondent for BusinessWeek