Skip to content
Subscriber Only

Japan: Google's Real-Life Lab

Cutting-edge phones, discerning consumers, and speedy connections make for rich feedback
Japan's mobile-phone users are accustomed to broadband-speed data
Japan's mobile-phone users are accustomed to broadband-speed data Laif/Redux

It was 10:51 p.m. in Tokyo, and suddenly Google (GOOG) was hit with a two- minute spike in searches from Japanese mobile phones. "We were wondering: Was it spam? Was it a system error?'" says Ken Tokusei, Google's mobile chief in Japan. A quick call to carrier KDDI revealed that it was neither. Instead, millions of cell-phone users had pulled up Google's search box after a broadcaster offered free ringtone downloads of the theme song from The Man Who Couldn't Marry, a popular TV show, but had only briefly flashed the Web address where the tune was available.

The surge in traffic came as a big surprise to Tokusei and his team. They had assumed that a person's location was the key element of most mobile Internet searches, figuring that users were primarily interested in maps of the part of town they happened to be in, timetables for the train home, or the address of the closest yakitori restaurant. The data from KDDI indicated that many Japanese were just as likely to use Google's mobile searches from the couch as from a Ginza street corner.