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Multifunction Cell Phones Arrive

February 7, 2001
This DDI Pocket phone is equipped with a digital camera. (DDI Pocket Inc.)

More and more cell phones equipped with a variety of functions that go far beyond simple voice communication are being developed and marketed. Although these extra functions are centered on amusement, cell phones are in fact highly technologically advanced instruments. Some have a built-in digital camera, which enable users to send and receive images by e-mail; some can play music while displaying still images or text; and some can play moving images and music simultaneously. There is also a new model that can play music while the user enjoys i-mode cell-phone Internet access. Yet another new model--now under development and expected to be on the market in two or three years--will function as a train ticket or commuter pass through the insertion of an integrated circuit (IC) chip. Just how far is the cell phone going to permeate our lives?

Look At the Phone and Say "Cheese!"
Cell phones that can handle photographs first appeared in November 2000, with a product developed by DDI Pocket Inc. This device is operated by plugging an ultra-small digital camera the size of a 500-yen coin (26.5 millimeters, or about 1 inch, in diameter) into the earphone jack of the cell phone. Since the camera can be rotated 360 degrees, it is possible to photograph not only a targeted subject but also, for example, your own face. The main attraction of this system is that images taken by the digital camera can be sent and received by the cell phone through its e-mail function. It is also possible to make photo stickers using these images.

In response, at about the same time the J-Phone Group came out with a cell phone that has a built-in digital camera. As well as enabling the sending and receiving of color images by e-mail, this cell phone also allows users to make photo stickers by connecting it to a special printer. The motivation for the development of these products was simple: Both cell phones and digital cameras are popular, so why not put them together?

One reason for the appearance of phones with camera functions is that in May 2001 NTT DoCoMo will become the first company in the world to provide a next-generation cell phone service--called FOMA, or Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access--which will greatly accelerate communication speed. Its main characteristic is that it will enable real-time, smooth transmission of moving images and other data up to 200 times faster than the present method. The aim of NTT DoCoMo's rivals appears to be to take the lead over this third-generation service by supplying image services through current cell phones before the next-generation service becomes established. NTT DoCoMo is already conducting research, however, on fourth-generation wireless technology, and aims to launch even more sophisticated multimedia services in about 2010.

NTT DoCoMo launched a cell phone that can play music at the end of 2000. The Sony-made phone contains a Walkman (personal stereo) function that enables users to play music downloaded from a computer or audio equipment onto the phone's built-in IC memory stick while at the same time enjoying the i-mode Internet service. Some companies have also begun music distribution services using the PHS (Personal Handyphone System) data communication function. Under this setup, users can receive music sent by the record company on their PHS and download it onto a memory device plugged into the PHS at a cost of 150 yen to 350 yen (1.30 to 3.04 U.S. dollars at 115 yen to the dollar) per song. A song lasting four or five minutes can be downloaded in about 10 minutes, and the quality is said to be on a par with that of a CD. NTT DoCoMo is scheduled to offer the same service on its next-generation cell phone.

Other new functions on some cell phones include a karaoke service, by which music is played while still images or text are displayed on the cell phone's screen, and a service by which music is played alongside moving images, such as movie information.

A Phone that Is Also a Train Ticket
East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) envisions inserting IC chips into cell phones to give them ticket and train pass functions. According to this concept, the railway company would form a tie-up with a cell phone company to produce a cell phone with an IC chip the size of an ordinary postage stamp. Users would be able to access the Internet via their cell phone to purchase train tickets and passes and reserve seats; then, by passing the phone over an automatic ticket gate, they would be able to pass through the gate and board their train. In the case of seat reservations, information would be relayed quickly from the ticket gate to the carriage, so there would be no need for on-board inspections. Although JR East has not specified when this system will be put into practice, observers believe that it is likely to be partially completed in the next two or three years.

There are also plans to enable cell phones to take the place of electronic money at station kiosks and convenience stores near stations and to serve as substitutes for movie theater tickets. While there are moves toward commercialization of a system by which cell phones would serve as tickets by displaying relevant information on their screens, the use of an IC chip would be a first. JR East is already renovating station ticket gates toward introducing IC-fitted commuter passes by the end of 2001, and conveniently the new system under development would be able to use these new gates.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. 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.