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CELL PHONES

Cell phone culture here unlike any other

by Kazuaki Nagata

Cell phones in Japan have evolved as a virtual extra appendage that people can’t walk, ride or relax without, as they constantly peer into their screens, send and receive messages, play video games, watch TV, and sometimes even communicate verbally.

Since their debut here in 1979, mobile phones have become essential tools with more than 100 million subscribers.

Like many other things Japanese, the nation’s cell phone culture has evolved differently than in other parts of the world, with special features and services so unique that the market has been likened to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

Following are basic questions and answers about Japan’s cell phone market: Why is Japan’s cell phone market likened to the Galapagos?

Just like the islands and the animal species there that have developed unlike anywhere else on Earth, Japan’s cell phone offerings cater to a market whose needs and activities have few foreign counterparts.

The demands of users here range from advanced functions such as built-in high-resolution cameras to electronic cash transactions, prompting manufacturers to offer high-end phones not seen in other parts of the world.

Subscribers here also rely heavily on sending and receiving e-mail, furiously tapping away on the key pad with their thumb.

The functions have evolved in a closed market partly because domestic giant NTT DoCoMo Inc. applied the Personal Digital Cellular communications network in 1993 to switch from analog to digital. Japan was the only nation to adopt PDC. Many other countries, especially in Europe, went with the Global communication for Mobile System, or GMS communications network.

Currently, a main communications network in Japan is W-CDMA, which has also spread worldwide.

What kinds of cell phones are popular in Japan?

Most offer a wide range of functions, with Internet browsing a popular feature that helped sustain the market’s growth.

Major carriers have their own Internet platforms, including DoCoMo’s i-mode, which debuted in 1999 and soon became a mainstay. I-mode enables users to easily access the Internet and, via various options, tap a wide range of Net content including ring tone selections.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry reported that in 2008 an estimated 75 million people were using cell phones to access the Internet, accounting for 82 percent of individual Internet users.

Another popular function is digital TV known as One Seg, or one segment of digital terrestrial broadcasts. This lets users view programs on major TV channels.

Other services include music, video games and cameras. Recent handsets from KDDI Corp. can shoot high-quality videos.

How does the market break down for providers?

DoCoMo is the dominant provider, with 55 million users as of July, or nearly 50 percent of the cell phone market, the Telecommunication Carriers Association said. No. 2 is KDDI’s au, with 31 million users, while Softbank Corp. has 21 million and E-Mobile Ltd. has 1.74 million.

Willcom Inc., which provides personal handy-phone system services, has 4.5 million users.

Who makes the handsets?

In fiscal 2008, about 35.9 million cell phones were shipped. Sharp Corp. accounted for 23 percent, followed by Panasonic Co. at 17.8 percent, NEC Corp. at 13 percent and Fujitsu Ltd. at 12.8 percent.

Why don’t foreign cell phone makers have a big presence here?

Getting into the market has always been a challenge for foreign firms because of the unique demands of users in Japan.

“They have to make a totally different phone (from those sold abroad), and they need to be high-end. Also, because they face competition with Japanese cell phone makers, I think foreign makers thought it would be difficult (to widen their share in Japan),” said Hiroshi Sakai, chief analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center.

But compared with the past, Sakai said the presence of the foreign makers is growing, including Taiwan’s HTC Co., South Korea’s LG Electronics and U.S.-based Apple Inc. with its iPhone.

How are Japanese cell phone makers faring overseas?

ABI Research, a market intelligence company, said only two Japanese companies were in the top 10 in 2008, with Finland’s Nokia Corp. having the world’s top cell phone share at 38.6 percent. Kyocera Corp. is ranked seventh with a 1.4 percent share and Sharp is 10th with 1 percent.

Japanese cell phone makers, however, once accounted for nearly a half of the global market share.

In 1985, the combined worldwide share of NEC, Oki Electric Industry Co., Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and Panasonic was 46 percent.

Experts attribute the decline in global market share to the decision to go with PDC.

Sakai said Japanese cell phone makers have been too preoccupied with the domestic market.

“The Japanese market was quite big, so they did not really have to be serious about foreign markets,” he said.

Some also point to the relationship between carriers and handset makers.

In Japan, carriers sell handsets they buy from manufacturers as their own products and handle the marketing. The makers thus do not have to worry about maintaining stocks or promoting their products all by themselves.

Sakai also said the Japanese companies did not do enough marketing research overseas.

But as the domestic market becomes saturated and even shrinks, Japanese makers will need to increase their presence abroad, Sakai said.

In late August, it was reported that NEC, Casio Computer Co. and Hitachi Ltd. plan to merge their cell phone product teams. Some took the move as an indication of plans to boost their combined domestic and overseas market shares.

What are other recent trends in the market?

Noting Nokia’s recently announced plan to enter the netbook market, Sakai thinks the integration of cell phones and computers will progress.

“The barrier between cell phones and computers is getting lower and lower,” he said, citing the iPhone as an example.

Makers that can find new needs in that field and create new markets will stay ahead of the game, he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk