Vodafone follows DoCoMo and KDDI into the brave new revenue world of Osaifu Keitai [wallet phone] introducing its first Felica-equipped handset at a press conference for the Japanese carrier’s Fall/Winter 3G lineup [.PDF]. Four handsets: the 702NK II from Nokia, 703SHf and 604SH both from Sharp plus the 703N by NEC are scheduled for release in October and November. The company is counting on this lineup’s smooth design esthetics, sophisticated hardware and contents to re-ignite consumer interest in the Vodafone brand.
At just 47mm wide the 703SHf is Vodafone’s slimmest 3G handset yet. Besides Felica it has a 1.3 megapixel camera, 2-inch ASV LCD screen and the music player supports AAC and SD-Audio MP3 music files. But who cares. It’s really all about the chip. The Felica IC chip system developed by Sony allows users to swipe Felica-equipped mobile handsets over designated readers and pay for everything from a bottle of ice tea to an airline ticket. DoCoMo started loading it onto their 3G phones in July 2004 and has sold around 5 million Felica-equipped phones so far. The other carriers have seen little choice but to follow. These Sony IC chips have become ubiquitous not by Felica but through the Suica JR train commuter cards which can also be used at shops inside designated train stations and at platform kiosks. Thanks to DoCoMo, Suica is going mobile next year and there are plans to incorporate private train lines and subways into the Suica system as well. KDDI began selling their first Felica handset, the W32S from Sony Ericcson, this month.
Vodafone brokered a deal with DoCoMo allowing them to use the Osaifu Keitai brand and logo along with the Vodafone name to promote Felica services. Vodafone Live! Felica will launch in conjunction with the November release of the 703SHf handset. A new Felica menu will be introduced into the Vodafone Live mobile Internet lineup to download applications for a number of Felica functions from Vodafone and Felica partner services. These should eventually include online recharging, balance checking, customer loyalty points and coupon downloads, transaction histories and more. The handset?fs compact design and textured finish is designed to appeal particularly to female consumers, says Vodafone?fs Products Planning Department General Manager Kazuyuki Mori. It does come in bright pink after all. Mori pointed out that the 703SHf also comes in black and white finishes for men as well.
Nokia is back with the 702NKII (Nokia 668). Firmly aimed at business users who care more about substance than style, this candy-bar style handset incorporates a document viewer for Word, Excel, Powerpoint and other Microsoft Office documents. The Nokia supports PC Link to sync schedules and contacts with the PC and Bluetooth for wireless links to PC or PDAs. A front-mounted integrated camera facilitates video calling. The W-CDMA system supports GSM abroad. Actually it could have benefited from the addition of the Felica chip as well since businesspeople are big users of the Felica system.
Vodafone is hoping to pull in high-end customers with the leather look of the versatile 703N by NEC. (DoCoMo is no doubt thinking the same thing with their luxurious Dulce handset released last summer.) For use in Japan only, the 703N comes with Picture Voice for adding voice messages to photos; Compact Desktop to paste shortcut icons in for mail functions and V-applis right on the standby screen; and Mulitask to activate and switch between a number of applications at the same time.
The V604Sh is essentially the V603Sh in a new package. Like its predecessor, the V604SH is equipped with an analog TV tuner, receives FM radio and has Japan?fs only mobile motion control sensor that responds to movements in games or switching the TV screen from vertical to horizontal positions. Unfortunately there have been few new contents or games that make use of this sensor?fs unique abilities relegating it to more of a novelty niche than a necessity. Vodafone has promised more to come for the motion sensor but provided no details or time lines. Resolution for the built-in camera has been bumped up from 2 to 3.2 megapixels. Again, here is a handset that could have notched up a few consumer points by including Felica in the hardware mix. This handset is geared towards entertainment and the inclusion of Felica would have made it a more desirable trade up from the 603SH.
The company launched two other handsets earlier in the month, the 903T and 803T, and is reportedly planning on introducing a total of ten handsets for the fall/winter sales season in a bid to turnaround sagging sales in this very demanding market. Though increases have been incremental – 18,000 in July – the hemorrhaging losses of last spring have finally stopped bleeding customers to other carriers. Now it is up to Vodafone K.K. to convince consumers that their handsets offer not only the style and function of rivals DoCoMo and KDDI but that the company can back it up with a reliable service network.
– Gail Nakada