FT : Japan’s Unique Mobile Apps

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

There must be few places in the world where mobile phone usage has become so integral a part of everyday life as in Japan.  Japanese use mobile phones for so much more than speaking and emailing – which replaces SMS in Japan – and it sets them apart from other markets across the globe.  For example, about 45% of mobile phone usage in Japan is for data, which compares with about 20% in the US, according to Nathan Ramler, an analyst at Macquarie Securities.  On top of this, Mr Ramler points out that only 2% of that data usage is for e-mail, while the time used for speaking on the phone is just 140 minutes per month for DoCoMo, Japan’s largest telecommunications company with about 50% market share.  That is about four and a half minutes of talking time a day.  Internet access makes up a big part of the usage.  More people use their mobile phones to access the internet than their personal computers.  The younger generation in particular use mobile phones as their primary access, Mr Ramler says.  The importance Japanese people place on data usage is all too evident on the Tokyo trains, where it seems that most commuters in their 40s and younger sit or stand engrossed in their mobile phone, whether playing games, watching television, listening to music, reading keitai (mobile) novels and comics, or e-mailing.  But what is perhaps more interesting than the common mobile technology such as cameras, videos, TV, radio, music and GPS, are the numerous obscure functions that the Japanese have developed for their handheld devices.

  1. Fe-ku chakushin: the fake incoming call.  This is the perfect bad-date escape.  By surreptitiously pressing a couple of buttons on your phone under the table at dinner, the function causes the phone to ring a few seconds later, enabling the owner to pick up, pretend to speak with someone, exclaim horror at the “situation”, excuse him or herself from the date and head for the exit.
  2. Secret History: A recent survey by Macromill, an online researcher, showed that 61% of respondents – in this case Japanese mothers with young children – secretly check the contents of their husband’s mobile phone.  Of that figure, 35% are checking to see if their husbands are having an affair, while 28% are checking to see if their other half is hiding something from them.  For those husbands (or wives) who do have something, or someone, to hide, some handsets offer a function that can prevent certain phone numbers or emails being recorded in the incoming and outgoing call/mail history.
  3. Eco-oto: Eco sound.  Many women in Japan are self-conscious about using public toilets or lavatories in restaurants and bars, with fear of being heard by next door’s occupant.  It has led to many flushing the toilet throughout their time in the lavatory.  But digital contents developer Polygon Magic has come up with an application to stop the water waste and end the embarrassment.  It recreates the flushing noise, which can be set at either 30, 60, 90 or 120 seconds and with adjustable sound levels. 
  4. Golf Lessons: Japanese “salarymen” are infamous for their love of golf and it is common to see them practising their swings as they wait for the train.  Fujitsu’s new handset for NTT DoCoMo has a function that uses 3D motion-sensor technology to monitor golf-swing movements.  It uses the data collected to provide a diagnosis of the owner’s swing and offers advice for improvement.

The list of such functions grows daily.  Companies such as NTT DoCoMo for example, are currently working on services that target the older population – an area of business that is set to grow with the country’s greying population.  Even Japanese who do not think they use their mobile phones much still seem to use them for a wide range of purposes.  As well as email and conversation, Shiyo Takahashi, the manager of a high-end store in Tokyo, uses his phone for betting on currency markets, checking rates, the weather, banking, train and concert ticket purchases and sometimes GPS.  Among the younger generation, mobile novels and manga (comics) have become extremely popular.  Some novels have even been written on a mobile phone.  A brief read of a keitai comic on a mobile phone highlights an added dimension: at a dramatic point in the story as you electronically turn the page, the phone vibrates.  Shopping is also a popular activity.  For example, Macromill’s survey of mothers showed that of the respondents who used their mobile phone for shopping, 65% did so at least once a month, with nearly 30% doing so at least once a week.  “The way Japanese consumers use their phones is unique,” says Macquarie’s Mr Ramler.  “Other markets may catch up with certain aspects of web browsing and mobile content consumption, but some mobile phone use will always reflect local cultures.  “While security features and convenient services have universal appeal, how each market or country specifically addresses them is likely to reflect the local culture and local patterns of consumption.”

Reference : Financial Times, Dec 10 2009

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