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Natsuno and Ai Kato launch DoCoMo's 505i.

NTT DoCoMo's launch announcement and press conference for the 505i-series featured the next generation of the carrier's 2G i-mode terminals and one of Japan's cutest teenage idols.

Among the six terminals (from Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, NEC, Panasonic, Sharp and Sony Ericsson), you'll find enhanced Java, mobile Flash display capability, enhanced onboard memory, removable memory sticks, a 1.3 megapixel camera, QVGA-resolution displays, fingerprint-scanning authentication and enhanced i-mode mail.

My first impression was that NTT DoCoMo had now entered a "post-packet-fee" era. By this, I mean that the company is no longer merely fixated on deploying features and services that boost individual packet usage and ARPU; this has been the sine qua non of mobile carriers in this country since the dawn of i-mode.

Now, with 1.3 megapixel cameras, extensive use of removable memory, a high-tech fingerprint reader/scanner built-in and other non-packet-generating features, DoCoMo has clearly decided to make the phones uber-sexy, so as to grab market share and stem the churn over to KDDI (and, to a lesser extent, J-Phone). Who cares how many packets 505i users generate so long as they actually buy one of these babies and make lots of voice calls, which are still the cash cow for DoCoMo. And you can take pretty decent snaps with it, too, even if you never send a single photo over the network.

As Wireless Watch Japan video producer Lawrence Cosh-Ishii wryly pointed out, the contrast between this DoCoMo extravaganza and J-Phone's December 2002 3G launch couldn't have been starker. Then, the traditionally teen-market-focused J-Phone guys went out of their way to look, act and appear ultra-buttoned-down and uber-corporate--in keeping with the business target audience of their new Vodafone Global roaming services.

On the other hand, DoCoMo--a historically plodding, corporate entity that regularly runs black and white snaps of its president in full-page newspaper ads touting the company's technology--bent over backwards to emphasize the youth-centric appeal of the sexy new i-mode handset series.

Takeshi Natsuno, co-creator of i-mode, was on stage wearing a cream-colored suit with no tie, while the firm must have written an I-don't-know-how-big check to get the (apparent) keitai fan Kato to try out the new models firsthand; she appeared surprised to find camera-quality digital photo capabilities in the new phones. Maybe teen idols don't get to Akihabara much?

Big D has recently rolled out a watch-phone that runs on the PHS network, a GPS-enabled handset (its first consumer mass-market device so enabled) and an e-commerce payment system that uses the infrared port for point-of-sale terminal communications. Whew!

During the 505i launch event, Natsuno was on stage to demonstrate the F505i's capabilities--including the fingerprint reader used to authenticate access to the phone's address book, mail, picture store and scheduler. When Natsuno applied his finger onto the reader plate glass (located at the bottom of the phone), nothing happened! "OK, we'll try that later," he said somewhat sheepishly, after waiting for some 30 seconds.

Now to be fair, the phones on demo were all pre-production models and the company said it will still take up to three months to get them ready to hit the market; presumably, any interface flaws will be solved by then. But on the other hand, they wouldn't have tried to demo the fingerprint reader if they hadn't thought it was ready for prime time. Early adopters: Be forewarned.

NTT DoCoMo 505i-series Launch Announcement and Specs

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Author:Scuka, Daniel
Publication:Japan Inc.
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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