Japan's mobile data sector is coming of age. What started with Hello Kitty screen savers and downloadable ringer tones is now becoming workgroup server access from a cellphone screen.
All of Japan's major enterprise software vendors, such as Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp., are selling packages that extend their corporate database and network systems to mobile phones, and foreign companies are also moving into this market.
Earlier this year FileMaker Inc., the database software unit of Apple Computer Inc., launched an add-on for its FileMaker software that extends access to I-mode, NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s popular wireless Internet service.
The company has already found users, it said. NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai), Japan's public broadcaster, is planning to publish a pronunciation dictionary via I-mode for use by its 6,000 radio and television announcers, while Kobe College is using the system to allow prospective students to schedule admissions interviews.
"The main target is business users," said Dominique Goupil, president of FileMaker. "The I-mode service is very popular in Japan among consumers but is increasingly attractive to business as well."
NTT DoCoMo has also signed deals with Oracle Corp. and SAP AG to work on I-mode interfaces and support for their database software offerings and is now beginning to turn its attention towards third-generation (3G) services.
Launched in October 2001, the initial few months of the 3G service have been less than spectacular. By the end of March this year, DoCoMo had 83,000 subscribers -- well short of the 150,000 subscribers it had been hoping would be using the service at the end of its first five months.
Corporate users are a big part of NTT DoCoMo's plans for 3G and the company is planning a number of new terminals especially targeted at this market.
The first such business-use 3G terminal was revealed in April. The F2611 combines the functions of a four-port Ethernet router with 3G handset. It can be used to set up a small office network, complete with Internet connection via the 3G network, and a companion handset allows users to make voice calls as well.
At ¥199,000 (US$1,556), the terminal isn't cheap but it does show NTT DoCoMo is thinking seriously about the corporate market.
Still, some business users testing the service are yet to see the light. Takenaka Corp., a general construction company, has been using videophones and standard handsets since the service launched and is so far yet to find a killer 3G application.
"At this point, we see many possibilities for 3G but every feature has not been made good use of yet," said Yohsuke Gokan, an engineer with the company. "With 3G, we want to build systems that can only be created using 3G handsets."
To date, the company has found few applications that cannot be done on 2G or 2.5G wireless networks and now a new technology is threatening the market: wireless LAN. 3G's 384k bps (bits per second) seemed like a lightning fast mobile data speed a year ago, but now appears almost primitive compared to an 11M bps (bits per second) WLAN (wireless LAN) system.
NTT Communications Corp. has already opened a 200-hotspot WLAN system in Tokyo and has plans to expand the ¥1,600 per month service to 1,000 hotspots by the end of this year.
The company is also talking to AT&T Global Network Services about offering corporate VPN (virtual private network) access via its WLAN network in the near future.