“This is just the beginning,” Takeshi Natsuno, Managing Director of DoCoMo’s i-mode Planning Department, told Wireless Watch of the new flagship 5 FOMA 900i handsets that DoCoMo showed today and that should be released in or around February 2004. Before about 600 journalists, Natsuno’s message was that, after two years of battling battery/bulk problems, here finally, were 3G phones capable of 2G performance in terms of standby time and weight. But beyond this, DoCoMo has clearly worked hard to differentiate the phones from being more than “Super 505i” and hinted that the company was considering lowering data packet rates to compete with KDDI WIN and Vodafone K.K.’s recent Happy Packet rate cuts. But wow! What’s loaded in the the new fab 5, for example 500 Kbytes of gaming capability will be inevitably be the Final Fantasy for gamers (the game appears to be preloaded) and a real nightmare for competitors. Natsuno san, not known for being shy on stage at these sort of events, seemed to speak from the heart when he called the lineup the “best mobile phones in the world!” The critical question for DoCoMo, however, is differentiation from the already all-singing, all-dancing 505 series, and quite a few of our doubts were answered. But questions also remain. We’ll have a video program on the show, the phones and the figures behind the models up soon. Before that, here’s some of the upgraded low down on the fantatabulous 900is. And THEN there are the P900iV and the F900iT.
The first question we had for DoCoMo were where were Sony Ericcson and Toshiba, who were part of the 505 series lineup? The answer was that they couldn’t make it on time. But the chances are they will bouncing back when the second wave of FOMA terminals comes next summer, possibly armed with the FeliCa mobile chips.
The second question of course, was where is the TV tuner. In his final press briefing of the year on December 5, DoCoMo president Keiji Tachikawa dismissed decking out FOMA or the DoCoMo PDC lineup with TV tuners until battery issues are sorted out. The official DoCoMo line, summed up today by a follow-up interview, is that after working so hard to bring FOMA phones up to what DoCoMo regards as its 300 hour benchmark for standby time, it would be nonsense to add a battery-draining tuner.
While WWJ concedes this point, we also remember that DoCoMo has a long history of dismissing other carrier’s innovations (notably Sha Mail) and then launching back a huge counter attack 6 months later. While DoCoMo has made it clear that 60 minutes usage time is unacceptable for them at the moment, it’s a sure bet that NEC and Sanyo are working feverishly to improve battery performance.
DoCoMo’s latest Fab 5 are packed with new features that Natsuno claimed are not designed to boost packet data use. Of course, he’s got to be kidding, but take a look at the specs. All the five models are armed with a Macromedia Flash-equipped browser, HTML e-mail and avatar-capable videophone capability. Compared with the original series of FOMA phones, 900i models offer three times longer standby and weigh 20 percent less.
In terms of what used to be called “rich multimedia” all the new phones offer flash applications of up to 100K, compared to 20K for 505is. The 900is also come armed with offer Java-based i-appli applications that offer a 400K scratch pad and have a maximum capacity of 100K for content/archiving, compared with 200K and 30K in existing models.
What does this all add up to? Well, for a start the N900i, for example, comes with Dragon Quest and the P900i with Final Fantasy preloaded! Wow! This time DoCoMo has really taken on Sharp?s J-SH53, for our money the world’s first arcade-game quality mobile on the market, and driven it out of the ring.
All of the 5 phones are built around the following specs and features:
1. All models are, as expected, loaded with megapixel cameras, with 1.28 megapixel the minimum. Two of them, the NEC N900i and Sharp’s SH900i have 2 megapixel cameras. Why not all of them? Regular readers will know the answer!
2. All have QVGA LCDs: But there’s a catch. While, as you would expect, Sharp, the LCD specialists, has an enlarged 2.4 inch screen delivering 262, 144 colors, the N900i and P900i “only” deliver 65,536 colors.
3. Each phone gets loaded with HTML e-mail powered Deco Mail (Japlish for “Decorative Mail”?) that’s a real corker, enabling email messages to be decorated with photos and animation downloaded from i-mode menu sites, as well as various backgrounds, fonts and letter colors. You’ll be able to see this in action, and it looks great. As well as dressing up emails, users will be able to download full color magazine articles as well as sending the inevitable Hello Kitty hello sailor “heart-full” emails. In plain terms, Deco Mail allows users to not only change the color and size of fonts, but also attach movement to e-mails with moving text and images, graphics and music, add background colors and “unlimited” pictograms.
4. Here is another cracker: Chaku-motion song and move downloads. Character expressions can be changed in real time. WWJ readers and Japan wireless watchers will know that carriers have made a killing on ring tone downloads. Chaku-motion blows this out of the water, allowing users to download MPEG-4 driven videos from 21,000 i-mode sites. Natsuno said that DoCoMo is now on a big push to drive even more contents!
5. Well, we knew it was coming, and here it is: “Chara-den,” an avatar-capable videophone service that allows users to transmit animated cartoon characters to represent the sender’s face instead of live video. We talked to Natsuno about Oki Denki’s real-time interactive avatar system and, as we suspected, that system is under consideration by DoCoMo. “We had to get the avatar system out as soon as possible, and we had to get as many contents providers on line quickly,” he said, hinting that DoCoMo may well upgrade the button-activated avatar to real-time interactivity later. Inevitably, Pokemon’s Pikachu is one of the characters. For those office ladies who so choose, they can press buttons to indicate “laugh” “be mad” “cry” “wave” “nod” “scratch your head” “shake your head” “tilt your head sometimes” “wipe away sweat” and, most intriguingly, perhaps, “be frisky.”
And there is more: For business users, Sharp’s SH900i is also equipped with Document Viewer for looking at MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint and PDF files. Unfortunately, and Natsuno conceded this, you can’t edit them yet. Another great feature we liked was Mitsubishi’s D900i which, with an output cable, allows users to play videos and still images recorded off the telly. For security, Fujitsu’s F900i contains an improved fingerprint sensor too.
As we pointed out at the Tokyo Game show earlier this summer, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were coming, but we didn’t think DoCoMo would actually preload them. For gamers, these phones are a real treat because the 500 Kbytes on offer takes the on-screen visuals to beyond what Sharp?s J-SH53 can offer. Gamers outside Japan will probably be green at the gills at what is already on offer; choice titles include Tales of Tactics, Fushigi no Dungeon, Tengai Makyou, I CHUNSOFT, Mobile Suit Gundam 3D, Pawafuru Puroyaku 3, Nobunaga’s Ambition Lord of Darkness.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this Viewpoint, Natsuno was at pains to point out that the 900i series is being launched as much more than an upgrade, with him strongly hinting that the thinking behind christening the new Fab 5 the 900i series was that they are nearly twice as good as the 505i PDCs.
Natsuno also revealed that DoCoMo’s unofficial target is to get 5 million PDC movers to upgrade, and this was really interesting, because we are getting mixed signals. If you ask three DoCoMo people the same question, you will get three different answers. Some in DoCoMo believe that given the massive publicity campaigns and uptake of this year’s 505 series, the new 900is will be in too early to catch a DoCoMo users’ upgrade cycle. Informally, DoCoMo believes that its subscriber upgrade period is about 2 years, which seems about right.
But of course, the hidden thinking behind this is that Natsuno let slip that DoCoMo is seriously considering shredding packet data rates for FOMA again.
This would seem to make a lot of sense, even though president Tachikawa has publicly dismissed the idea. Now that FOMA has passed 1.7 million subscribers, largely we believe because of the huge handset subsidy policy, the only issue left for customers is the lingering perception of FOMA being expensive in terms of packet charges. Natsuno indicated that the 900is will be competitively priced– no surprize — and now comes the admission that DoCoMo has to address packet charges again. Clearly, KDDI WIN data flat rates for data and Vodafone’s Happy Packet price slashing were very, very unwelcomed by DoCoMo, which doesn’t want to get into a price war. The question now is, do they have a choice?
A second set of FOMA should also be out in the summer, probably loaded with FeliCa mobile chips, although we couldn’t get this confirmed today. But, before that, happens, here are two intriguing new phones coming up: the P900iV that will basically become a mobile phone video cam, and the F900iTthat looks as if it will become a PDA, with a touch panel and Bluetooth connectivity.
Natsuno spent a lot of time on schlock about the NEC phone’s design with it’s “sharp” and “cool” image. In the age of the salariman, the N900i is the next best thing to a samurai sword. We don’t care about the style, but we do admit the phone is pretty “cutting edge.”
– Paul Kallender