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No-Frills Cell Phones Attract Older Users (January 14, 2005)

The Tuka-S (Jiji)
Modern cell phones are a lot more than just phones. In addition to voice calls, they can be used to send e-mail, take photos and videos, navigate the Internet, and even conduct bank transactions. But not everyone is impressed with such a plethora of functions. Japan's cell phone providers have lately been hit with a flood of complaints from people, many of them senior citizens, who say that figuring out how to use the new-fangled devices - even if only to make a simple phone call - has become a daunting challenge. In response, providers have launched models that dispense with complex features and are easy to use.

Voice-Call-Only Phones
The Tuka-S, introduced by the Tu-ka Group of cellular operators, is designed to feel like the utilitarian black telephones of yesteryear. A rarity among modern cell phones, it handles just one job: voice calls. It has a highly streamlined design, and the buttons are large and few in number: a mere 15. Ten of these are numerals, with the remaining five consisting of a sharp, an asterisk, a talk button, an end-call button, and a power button.

The Tuka-S weighs in at just 87 grams, yet it packs plenty of power. Its battery can hold a charge for up to 840 hours (about 35 days) when the handset is in standby, or 240 minutes of talk time. One secret of the battery's longevity is the absence of a liquid crystal display (LCD), which helps to extend battery life to up to double that of conventional cell phones. The Tuka-S sells for under ¥5,000 ($50 at 100 yen to the dollar). Though only released in November, Tu-ka officials say sales are already robust and expect the device to end up a hit.

A company representative explains: "Sales will be reduced due to the fact the handset only does voice calls, resulting in less usage time. But then again, its costs are lower. What's more, the elderly don't terminate their contracts at the rate younger people do. So we expect business in this sector of the market to be good and stable."

Largeness is the main design feature of the Mova F672i (Raku Raku Phone III) and the Foma Raku Raku Phone offered by NTT DoCoMo Inc. The phones have super-sized LCDs, numerals, and buttons, which are both easy to use and easy to see. Another handy feature is the one-touch dial button, which stores frequently called numbers. The latest models even provide voice instructions telling users how to send e-mail from their handsets.

Another cell phone provider, Vodafone K.K., is selling models that not only feature large, easy-to-read characters but can also be set up to limit functionality to just the bare essentials, or to just those functions that owners use the most. NEC Corp., on the other hand, is relying on cutting-edge technology to keep its handsets user-friendly. The company has developed a system that enables users to receive operation instructions simply by tilting their handsets toward them. When the user asks for assistance - for example, by saying "I want to send an e-mail" - he or she is connected to a voice-recognition server, and instructions appear automatically on the handset's screen. The company says the technology is nearly ready for commercial use.

Befuddled by Too Many Features
These new lineups tailored to the technically challenged come as Japan's cell-phone market appears to have hit the point of saturation. As of the end of November 2004, there were 84.97 million handsets in use throughout the country, according to the Telecommunications Carriers Association, indicating that fully two out of every three people in Japan were cell-phone users.

It is a market that, at first glance, appears to have little room for further growth. However, the rate of use tapers off in higher age brackets. According to the 2004 White Paper on Information and Communications in Japan produced by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, more than 80% of people in their twenties and thirties are cell-phone users. But the rate drops to a mere 26.4% among those aged 65-69, 11.4% among those in their seventies, and 4.7% among people in their eighties.

At the same time, the relatively few people who do not own a cell phone are finding it increasingly difficult to make calls while outside of their homes or offices. That is because the number of public pay phones nationwide had plunged to 503,000 as of the end of March 2004, a decrease of 320,000 from the previous year.

As mobile communications continue to proliferate, expect more heated competition among cell phone providers as they try to snag those untapped consumers who want nothing more than a mobile version of their fixed-line phones.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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