DoCoMo's 506i Series Launch Event
DoCoMo's 506i Series Launch Event

DoCoMo's 506i Series Launch Event

DoCoMo's 506i Series Launch Event

We’re not too sure about NTT DoCoMo’s motivation for fielding the first three models of the new 506i-series second-gen cellys. Sure, Big D have got to stay in front of the public eye with new models, new colours, etc. Japan’s consumer terminal market is nothing if not intensely competitive and trying to sell six-month old cell phones — which have often already lost 50% of their value at retail — is like, Oh, Soooo six-months old… Missing a slot in the handset upgrade cycle can be costly, as No. 3 competitor Vodafone has found to their regret.

But the other unwritten rule is that new handsets have to offer new functionality — and the 506i-series, so far, doesn’t offer all that much.

Sure, there are some cool new features. NEC’s N506i boasts a new, 180-degree TFT screen-rotation feature. It also has a “ShuttleKey” that enables voice calling, emailing, and browsing while the handset is closed (after being opened and rotated), a TV hook-up capability for viewing photos and video clips on a TV, and an email “read-aloud” capability that can be controlled by a pre-registered voice.

But other improvements are not all that impressive. Mitsubishi’s D506i, for example, can store four times as many Java applets or pictures as the D505i; the camera flash is six times brighter, and the voice recording and voice-activation features have been enhanced. NEC N506i has a “QVGAPLUS” display, offering a 345 x 240-dot LCD (versus 320 x 240 dots under standard QVGA).

There’s a cool finger-print scanner on the Fujitsu model (but that’s already available on both last year’s 505i model and on the F900i FOMA model); likewise, the IR data-exchange and remote-control capabilities, the QR & JAN 2-D bar-code readers, the mega-pixel cameras, DX i-Appli Java, and QVGA LCD displays are all already available on other DoCoMo phones (see the 506i press release link at the foot of this article).

While all these may be quantitatively better than the 505i-series, they are not qualitatively different. And one of the major improvements that was due to be released with the 506i-series, the FeliCa e-wallet functionality — was markedly absent from the press conference. Will we have to wait for the Sony, Panasonic, or Sharp models before FeliCa is fully implemented?

The only really new functions we could spot are the Visa credit-card payment system (that interacts with a POS terminal via IR) and some enhancements due to the new, digicamera-like form factors.

Maybe this series should be called the 505i-plus-alpha series?

You’ll also note in the video program that several journalists asked Masuda-san, from DoCoMo’s i-mode Planning Department and host of the press conference, whether DoCoMo will continue to split resources between 2G and 3G handset development (and, by extension, require the handset makers to do the same)? Masuda-san answered: “900i-series is our flagship, so we’ll promote that. But if we listen to the user’s requirements, we have to sell non-900i-series — we cannot offer only 900i. But we can manage this issue. In the end, we wish to shift over to the 900i-series.” She added that whether this is the last of the 5XXi-series (2G) also “depends on the demands of the users.”

Will there be a 507i-series? “I cannot say that for sure at the present,” said Masuda-san.

The questions from the press in the video raise a more serious criticism related to the possibility that artificially extending the life span of the 2G 5XXi-series may end up slowing the migration of customers to FOMA — in what is supposed to be the year to push forward on 3G.

For old-fashioned i-moders that just want a fancy pocket rocket and are happy to crawl along the wireless web at 28.8 Kbps, a shiny new 506i may be just fine. But to make any serious dent in KDDI’s massive, mind-bogglingly large 3G lead, DoCoMo’s got to push FOMA (and its soon-to-start flat-rate billing).

There’s little doubt that churn to KDDI’s 144-Kbps and 2.4-Mbps versions of 3G and their flat-rate billing has started to eat into DoCoMo’s market share, and more 2G handsets — however fancy and spiffed up — will likely do little to stem the tide.

— The Editors


506i-series Press Release