Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is Asia the center of mobile universe?

I wonder if Asia is the center of the world's mobile industry. Many mobile industry people I talk to tend to think that way, but is it really so? When it comes to handset makers, Japan indeed has more than its share of manufacturers. We have many internationally know consumer electronics brands, such as Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp, just to name a few. Yet the biggest mobile handset manufacture in the world right now is Finland's Nokia. According to IDC, the US research company, Nokia has a lion's share of 39.1% of the world's mobile handset market in the fourth quarter of 2008. Korea's Samson is the distant second with 18.3% share. Also Korea's LG Electronics came in third with mere 8.9%. Japanese consumer electronics big names, as a matter of fact, are grouped together as "the rest"; they don't have a meaningful presence in the world's mobile handset market.
All right, forget about handsets. Let's look at mobile operating systems.
Personal computers have operating systems such as Windows, Apple's OS X, and Linux. Just like PCs, mobile phones have the operating systems also. Traditionally, handset manufacturers have their own home grown operating systems, but in order to cut cost, the industry has been desiring the common operating system so that they would not have to develop the whole software from the scratch. If the basic functionalities, such as making phone calls or sending emails, are handled by the operating system, the manufacturers can concentrate their resources to develop other functionalities to differentiate from competitors. Indeed, some manufactures get together to form industry wide consortiums to develop an operating systems as a common platform. LiMo is one of those endeavours that the industry players working on. Symbian is another operating system, developed by Nokia; but Nokia made the operating system as open source so that anyone in the industry can use the software.
On November 5, 2007, Google, the US Internet giant, sent a shock wave across the mobile industry, announcing that they were going to develop an open source mobile operating system and would make it free of charge for any mobile handset makers to install on their handsets.
Again, no Asian companies playing major roles in the mobile operating systems space.
So why some Asian mobile players still think that Asia is the center of the mobile industry.
There are two reasons I think: sheer numbers and advanced functionalities.
In developing counties, it is said more people access the Internet via mobile phones rather than personal computers. Owning a PC for occasional information gatherings may not be very cost effective for not so wealthy people in redeveloping countries. Compared to PCs, mobile phones are affordable and offer great utility even for people who are not technologically savvy. Anyone who purchases a mobile phone can talk with land line phones users from day one. Therefore it make more sense for a person with not much disposable income to own a phone rather than a PC. Even voice communication is what prompts people to purchase a mobile phone, today's most mobile phones are equipped to access the Internet. Though the person at first may not realise the significance of the Internet functionalities, eventually he or she would find out that the mobile phone is something that is able to open up the window to the world way beyond the every day life .
Richard Robinson who attended the Infinity Ventures Summit 2008 Fall in Miyazaki, Japan, and spoke in a panel discussion titled "Asia is the center of mobile universe" knows the potential of Asia's mobile market. He has been working in the Internet, mobile industry in China more than twelve years, travelling constantly from a city to a city in Asian countries. Kooky Panda, his company, develops Flash based contents for mobile web sites almost all countries in Asia. Still the company doesn't have a foothold in either Korea or Japan. "Korea and Japan are two markets that are extremely advanced and attractive but I don't think that many companies are able to crack the markets. So we didn't even attempt to enter Korea or Japan, " said Richard. "The rest of the Asia Pacific, if you look at the sheer numbers, is quite attractive. Almost half of global population is in Asia. Almost half of the world Internet population is also in Asia. So you can't ignore it," says Richard. According to Robinson, Indonesia is a country with the third largest mobile market in Asia besides China and India. As the world's fourth-most populous nation with some 238 million total population, of which about 150 millions are mobile users. In comparison, there are only 25 million PC Internet users. "5 to 1 ratio," said Robinson. "And there are very limited domestic development, not a lot of fore players in the market. We enter the market last year, this year we are number one player in the market. "
Bin Liu, CEO of Yicha Online, China's number one mobile search engine company thinks that number is power. Liu, who spoke in the same panel of Infinity Venture Summit as Robinson, says that Asia is leading mobile Internet space with its big user base. According to Liu, mobile viruses are infecting many mobile phones in China. "Perhaps, mobile viruses are something unheard of in the US or Europe," he said. Because of the large user base, problems such as viruses emerges first in China. Yet then in turn, solutions for problems also emerge first in China: There is a mobile security company in China now. The name of the company is NetQin Tech. Co., Ltd. "NetQin is a biggest mobile security company in the world," said Liu .

On top of sheer number, Asia, especially Japan, has advanced technologies also. In fact, Japan has been introducing many new mobile applications to the world. NTT docomo, Japan's largest mobile operator, has started the "i-mode" service in 200 . It has become the world's first successful mobile Internet service. Camera phone was first deployed by J-phone, another mobile operator in Japan. J-phone was purchased by Softbank, Japan's Internet conglomerate, and now has become Softbank Mobile.
Today, Japan has the largest user base of 3G phones in the world. Average phones in Japan have camera, TV, bar code reader, and Internet browser capabilities, and many advanced phones have GPS and electric money functions.
It is true that Apple's i-Phone and Google's Android based phones are technologically very advanced. Yet, basic technologies in those phones have been well into use by Japanese phones some years ago. i-Phone 3G sale was reported with such a fanfare by the Japanese press, yet it hasn't necessarily swept the Japanese market.

"Asia is cell phone centric," said Bin Liu, of Yicha, "neither iPhone or Android has made any big progress." "Japan and China are largest mobile Internet countries in the world," said Liu.

This article is a part of the draft for a book I am writing in English right now. Please let me know if there is any misspelling or factual errors.

Monday, February 2, 2009

SoundCode: URL as a sound

"I drive my wife to the train station everyday. While driving, we listen to the radio. Sometimes the radio says, 'for more information, please access the following URL,' and starts spelling out the entire URL starting with 'www. ' What are they thinking? It's impossible to jog down the entire URL while driving!," says Taka Tsukuma of Fieldsystems, a Japanese mobile content company.
"I wanted to develop something like QR code with sound. I wanted a sound version of QR code," says Tsukuma.
QR code is a two dimensional bar code, that is widely used in Japan. Usually less than a square inch, QR codes can be printed on various surfaces. Advertising pages in magazines, and posters on subway wall sometimes have QR codes printed also. Some business people print QR codes on their business cards prompting people to access their company's' web sites.
Most mobile phones in Japan have cameras equipped, and the cameras double as QR codes readers. You activate the camera and hold the cell phone over a QR code. If the camera successfully recognizes the QR code, the cell phone convert the code into a URL. Then using the cell phone's web browser, you can access the URL's web page. With QR codes you don't have to type in a long URL while typing a long URL can be quite a hassle using cell phone's only ten keys.
Since with QR codes the camera of the cell phone has become an inputting device for the cell phone's web browses, could not the microphone of the cell phone be also an inputting device? All the cell phones are equipped with microphones any way. If a sound has become a convertible code, accessing web can be a much easier task using cell phones, Tsukuma thought to himself.
His company, Fieldsystems is one of the successful cell phone web creators in Japan. Specializing on FLASH technology, the company is well known for user-friendly cell phone web pages. It runs 10 successful cell phone specific web sites under Japan's three major cell phone operators.
After putting some time and effort, Tsukuma and his company developed a technology that converts a text into a sound. They name the technology SoundCode. According to Tsukuma the technology can convert a text message that can be up to 2048 alphabet letters long into a sound. When converted into a sound, a message of 2048 letters is about seven tenths of a second long. Considering most URLs are less than 40 letters long, typical SoundCode can be about one hundreds of a second.
SoundCode itself is audible to human ears. However SoundCode can be hidden between other sounds such as human voices and music. In order to recognize a SoundCode, a special software needed to be installed onto cell phones This special software can recognize a SoundCode as small as minus 30 decibels of surrounding sounds. In other words, you can input a SoundCodes as a very small sound in-between regular conversational voices, and the software can still recognize the small sound as a SoundCode and convert it into a URL.
Although SoundCode is a analog sound, it has many digital sound characteristics, according to Tsukuma. For instance, it is as easy to find the beginning of the SoundCode as an digital sound. SoundCode also has an ability to revise itself just like a digital sound can. Even the cell phone can recognize only broken parts of a SoundCode, by repeating the SoundCode several times the cell phone collects unbroken parts of the SoundCode and combine them into a whole code.
In order to broadcast SoundCode, the broadcast station needs a special encoder software installed onto a personal computer. The process of generating SoundCode is very simple. You type in a URL into the PC, then the software generates a SoundCode. The software also is capable of mapping the SoundCode to hide in between the broadcast sound, so that the listeners don't realize the existence of the SoundCode.
It may be a good idea to announce the airing of the SoundCode, in order to prompt the listeners to activate the software on their cell phones in time.
"I want every cell phone to have a capability of SoundCode someday. For that goal, first I want to develop the decoder software download-able by any cell phones. But in the end, I want SoundCode technology to be embedded onto the cell phone IC chip, " says Tsukuma. "I look forward to the day that every cell phone has a SoundCode hardware button. With one push of the button, the SoundCode decoder and microphone are activated and pick up a SoundCode in the air, and convert it into a URL," says Tsukuma.
There are many possible applications of SoundCode. Broadcasting SoundCode, something that made Tsukuma to develop the technology in the first place, is just one of those possible applications.
You can broadcast SoundCode at shopping malls between background music, said Tsukuma. You can program speakers at a different location within a mall to air a different SoundCode, so that the shopper can download the near-by shops sales information over the cell phone.
SoundCode can be almost inaudible therefore you can broadcast it in quiet places such as museums. Museum goers can access to web pages which explain the near-by displays.
SoundCode can be embedded in TV dramas. If a viewer happen to like what an actress is wearing, by activating the cell phone microphone and receiving a SoundCode, the viewer may access the shopping site that sells that particular dress.
As a matter of the fact, with SoundCode you can send a URL to consumers in any type of environments where there is a speaker.
SoundCode has won a I*deal competition, a mobile business model idea contest sponsored by Mitsui Ventures on January 20, 2009.