Japan: A Wonderland for the Wireless Crowd

The pioneer of mobile Web services doesn't rest on its innovations

In 1998, Junji Kamaya felt like an exile in some backwater, cut off as he was from the mobile-phone mania sweeping Japan. An engineer at TKAI Inc., a Web consulting firm in Portland, Ore., Kamaya had to put up with the local fare--old-fashioned pagers or analog phones--while friends back home in Japan played with the latest Web phones, bombarding one another with e-mails while on the go. When his company, now called Ion Global, opened an office in Tokyo in 1999, Kamaya jumped at the chance to return to the cradle of the mobile Web culture.

Kamaya has more than made up for lost time. The 28-year-old gadget fanatic now carries two Web phones and a data-communications card that provides a fast wireless hookup for whatever he plugs it into: his personal digital assistant, digital camera, or laptop computer. Kamaya's favorite? A sleek new camera-phone from Sharp. "I take pictures wherever I go," he says, holding up the featherweight handset.

He points the $150 phone at a colleague, clicks a button, and then, with several more clicks, sends the picture as an e-mail attachment to his co-worker's cell phone. The end result is a color image of astonishingly good clarity. If he had wanted, he could have typed in a note to go along with the snapshot.

A STEP AHEAD. Advanced, easy-to-use handsets, innovative services, and hassle-free networks--this is the mantra of Japanese wireless carriers. While much of the rest of the developed world wrestles with clunky phones, spotty connections, and hard-to-use mobile Net services, Japan has stayed a step ahead. And it has nothing to do with third-generation (3G) services, the first of which was rolled out in October in Tokyo by NTT DoCoMo (NTDMY ). For now, everyone seems content with Japan's existing second-generation, or 2G, digital networks that provide always-on connections for data transmission and support a wide range of online services--from news, weather, and ticket-booking to downloads of games and ring tones.

Numbers tell the story. Of Japan's 66 million cell-phone users, fully two-thirds subscribe to one or more of the mobile data services offered by the country's three cellular operators. The most popular is DoCoMo's i-mode, with more than 28 million subscribers. KDDI's EZweb and J-Sky, operated by the up-and-coming J-Phone, each serve around 9 million people. Much of the data traffic takes the form of e-mail, but there's plenty of demand for online mobile services as well. Already, there are an estimated 50,000 Web sites formatted for i-mode subscribers.

Kamaya's new camera-phone, with its picture-messaging capability, is about to become the Next Big Thing. Like 2 million others who have purchased a camera-phone, he regularly sends pictures to friends while shopping, traveling, or simply hanging out. "It's the picture postcard that you can send anytime and anywhere," he says. To illustrate, Kamaya clicks on one from a friend waiting for him at a party. It shows a close-up of a bottle of Guinness beer, with a note saying, "Hurry up, Guinness is waiting for you!"

For those who crave the cutting edge, there are DoCoMo's impressive 3G handsets. One is a Panasonic videophone that captures and sends high-quality color movies at a speed that is practically real time. But with a hefty $500 price and service limited to just Tokyo now, DoCoMo so far has sold about 10,000 handsets.

Even Kamaya, the cell-phone maniac, is biding his time. "I really don't need another gadget to carry around," he quips. When he can buy a videophone with a built-in handheld computer that works nationwide, you can bet he'll be the first in line.

By Irene M. Kunii in Tokyo

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