Japanese Device Challenges iPhone

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Apple Inc.'s iPhone may still have the world's heart aflutter, despite a sharp price cut that stiffed early adopters and the recent release of a software update that turned some unlocked iPhones into electronic bricks. But there's more to the world of cell phones than Apple, and users outside Japan are missing out on some of the nicest-looking and most sophisticated phones ever made.

Japanese operator KDDI Corp. laid out the best that Japan's cell-phone industry has to offer at the Ceatec exhibition held this week in Chiba, Japan. Among the handsets attracting the most attention from visitors was the funky-looking Infobar 2, a KDDI handset with cutting-edge features that will hit the market in November for around ¥20,000 (US$172), not including the cost of a service contract.

Inspired by the look of a melting candybar, the Infobar 2 has a 2.6-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) screen that offers resolution of 240 pixels by 400 pixels, a 2-megapixel camera, 100M bytes of internal storage, and a microSD slot for memory cards containing music or other files.

The cost of microSD cards has fallen in step with memory prices. A 2G-byte card now costs around US$20, and prices will continue to fall even as capacities rise over time. That's less storage capacity than the 8G-byte hard disk inside the $399 iPhone, but how many songs can one person listen to during the course of the day, or on vacation?

The Infobar 2, which comes in four color schemes, also has an embedded Felica smart chip for electronic payments. Approximately half of all new phones sold in Japan come with these chips, and Java applets are available that allow Felica-based phones to pay for subway trips and train tickets, as well as make purchases at convenience stores, vending machines, and restaurants.

The Felica system also allows Japanese air travellers who are registered with an airline's frequent-flier program to use their phones in lieu of a boarding pass on domestic flights.

There are similarities between the Infobar 2 and iPhone. For example, both handsets are tied to an operator, allowing tighter integration between the handset and mobile services available to subscribers. But much of the technology used with the Infobar 2 is one or more generations ahead of the iPhone.

Unlike the iPhone, the Infobar 2 doesn't have support for Wi-Fi but with KDDI's CDMA2000-1X EV-DO network, who needs it? Phone users can surf the Internet or send e-mails nearly anywhere in Japan at speeds up to 2.4M bps (bits per second). By comparison, AT&T Wireless Inc., the exclusive provider of the iPhone in the U.S., says the EDGE network used with the iPhone offers average download speeds of 70K bits per second (bps) to 135K bps -- hardly speeds that set your pulse racing.

When users get bored of sending e-mails with the Infobar 2, they can watch digital-television broadcasts. These broadcasts are free and are available across the country, with different channels available in each region. In Tokyo, there are seven channels available to viewers: two from public broadcaster NHK and five commercial channels.

In addition, each television broadcast includes a data stream of related information, such as a ticker of headlines that runs alongside a news broadcast or subtitles for a drama, a handy feature for users prone to leaving their earphones at home.

Of course, Apple's iPhone is more than just a phone: the device is still a music player at heart. But Japanese operators have developed music-download services that outshine the iTunes Store, giving users the option of downloading music directly to their handsets, for example.

Users can access KDDI's Lismo music store from their handsets or their PCs, and the software will synchronize files stored on the two devices when they are connected. You can also copy songs from a CD in your collection to Lismo. And when you change phones, Lismo lets you copy all of your songs to the new handset.

One cool feature of the Lismo service is the search function. You can search by artist or song title, but you can also find a song if you don't know its name or who sings it. Just hum part of the song into your handset and Lismo will match the song you hum with a music file in its database.

Song prices on Lismo, which average about ¥300 to ¥400, are roughly twice what iTunes charges in Japan. But music CDs are generally more expensive here, costing approximately ¥3,000. And song files purchased on Lismo can also be used as ringtones. That's not the case with iTunes: if you want to use a song as an iPhone ringtone you must buy a second file at the same price as the original.

KDDI claims Lismo offers a wider range of Japanese songs than iTunes. That's partly because iTunes does not offer songs from Japanese artists in Sony Corp.'s catalog, which includes many of the best-known and most popular Japanese artists.

Granted, the Infobar 2's design may not be for everybody. Most Japanese cell-phone users prefer clamshell designs, and the Infobar 2 is not available to subscribers of NTT DoCoMo Inc., Japan's largest operator. But that doesn't mean users have to forego these features: Felica, digital television, and music download services like Lismo are available on dozens of handset models that support high-speed 3G (third-generation) networks run by KDDI, DoCoMo, and Softbank Mobile Corp.

Apple and other handset makers outside Japan, as well as mobile operators, have some catching up to do.

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