Saturday, June 28, 2014

Can the MIC really "oblige" Japanese carriers to unlock phones?

The Jiji Press is reporting that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) is going to “oblige” carriers to remove SIM locks on handsets. How, exactly, the MIC plans to do this is a mystery to me. The MIC issues “guidelines” that the carriers are supposed to follow but don’t really have to.

Here is an excerpt from the shorther Japanese version of the article because the English version is only hosted in a place to which I no longer link.
On the 27th, the MIC decided to strengthen guidelines requiring the removal of SIM locks that prevent handsets sold by mobile carriers to be used on different networks. Unlocking guidelines were set in June 2010, but there has been little change because the MIC put off making them compulsory. As a result, the MIC has determined that it must radically review current guidelines
The article goes on to say that the MIC plans to convene a panel of experts from the 30th to devise a detailed strategy by the end of the current fiscal year (next March).

The English version goes on to talk about separation of subsidy and service cost:
In Japan, by contrast, the major carriers put SIM locks on their most popular handsets and offer sizable discounts on them to lure new subscribers. Smartphone users whose Internet use is limited and long-time subscribers are both upset about the expensive monthly rates being used to finance such discounts.
Thing is, the MIC has already obliged carriers to separate hardware discounts from monthly fees. Those of you who have been in Japan for a number of years should clearly remember the hoopla surrounding the death of the zero-yen keitai that this was supposed to cause, and when SIM unlocking was first debated, Softbank used the impact on handset sales as justification for keeping SIM locks.
The Gloom and Doom cometh!

So carriers are supposed to separate subisdy costs from service costs but consumers complain that they don’t do this. There’s always wiggle room for the carriers. This time, imagine that somehow the MIC manages to make carriers unlock all phones. In response, they’ll just lock down the APNs like Apple does with the majority of their iPhones, making it nearly impossible (without hacking and warranty voiding) to get a data connection on another carrier. Docomo already cripples tethering in this exact way when their unlocked phones are used with any other provider, even with MVNOs using Docomo’s network.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Who gets an OTA official docomo update to KitKat (4.4)?

Nestle KitKat
I never saw this in stores.
Yesterday, docomo released a notice indicating which of its handsets will be getting an OTA update to Android 4.4, aka KitKat.

The list is as follows:

  • XperiaTM Z SO-02E
  • Xperia Z1 SO-01F
  • Xperia Z1 f SO-02F
  • ARROWS Tab F-02F
  • Galaxy S4 SC-04E
  • Galaxy Note3 SC-01F
  • Galaxy J SC-02F
Furthermore, the bulletin added that they do not plan to update any other non-new models to Android 4.4, so it looks like the latest version of the docomo ROM will be the last for those with older models.
Only the above 9 models will receive a version update to Android 4.4. Furthermore, models not listed above will not receive updates due to hardware limitations and other reasons.
Sharp AQUOS Zeta SH-02E
I loved the candy red case variant of this phone.
Personally, as the owner of a handset not on this list (Aquos Zeta SH-02E), I'm a little disappointed, but this is par for the course for a company with so many models to support with smartphones lasting an average of two and a half years and often having a maximum lifetime (if you're lucky) of five years.

Up to now, my phone had received regular updates from Docomo over the two years of its life; Docomo divides its updates into regular software updates (called ソフトウェア更新 {sofutowea kōshin}) — which are often, but not always, used for updating internal Docomo specific firmware and radios — and メジャーアップデート {mejā·appudēto} (major updates) — which are used for updating changes big enough to change the "Android version number" and name. An interesting quirk about the updates is that major updates, like most Android devices, can be (and is recommended, due to their size) downloaded via Wi-Fi, whereas Docomo specific software updates are done via the broadband radio using a special APN.

When I bought my phone, it was running a Docomo specific version of Ice Cream Sandwich, aka Android 4.3. Docomo upgraded it to JellyBean, and continued to push new Android updates that changed the version number but still stayed in the "JellyBean" class of devices.

Of course, it is always possible to root some phones and install third party versions of KitKat or other firmware sets onto one's device, but depending on the hardware and software, one may lose out on access to some of the docomo software and hardware features that are unique to Galápagos Japanese smartphones (FeliCa for example).

Docomo / Samsung Galaxy Nexus SC-04D with LE back lid
Early SC-04D purchases got a limited edition back
and a Docomo branded Sharp eneloop charger
Trying to predict how long a phone will continue to receive updates is an inexact guessing game, but from my experience up to now, most people that buy their phone new after late 2011 have usually received major updates for at least a year and a half, which based on the Android release cycle is usually good for one major Android naming "leap"; Nexus devices have tended to receive updates for a longer period of time (but not faster and not as fast as Google releases updates) than Galápagos versions.

For example, my two Docomo Galaxy Nexus phones, which are considered old phones when you consider the existence of all the other Samsung Galaxy devices which have been since them, have received two major updates, including the enabling of tethering.

Docomo's Galaxy Nexus (SC-04D) is running a build that is slightly tweaked from the stock Nexus; it includes software for Japan disaster bulletins (エリアメール {eria·mēru}): "Area Mail". Released in 2011 with Android 4.0.1 (ICS), they are now running official 4.3.x docomo variants of JellyBean (4.2).

Android Game of Thrones
Choose your Android wisely; upgrade death happens early.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Limited Suica Penguin Cookies available July 1st in Tokyo

Suica Penguin Cookies
You know you want to eat one of these.
Almost everything in Japan has a mascot. Some mascots are more popular than others. Some mascots are so popular that the goods and images for the mascot is more popular than the actual product, place, or company that the character represents.

Pop quiz: what is Docomo's main mascot? (Answer at the end of this article)

For those who are fans of IC Card Suica Penguin mascot and happen to be in Tokyo on July 1st, you're in luck. The Hotel Metropolitan is offering a limited one time run of cookies (butter flavored) in the shape of the JR East's famous penguin mascot. Only 40,000 cookies will be made, in two styles (one winking and one not), and they will be sold from the Pastry & Bakery Boutique CROSS DINE in the Hotel Metropolitan located in western Ikebukuro for ¥300 a cookie.

The Suica Penguin character was created by the famous picture book illustrator 坂崎千春 {SAKAZAKI Chiharu}} in 2001. "Mobile Suica", which is the version of Suica that is integrated into legacy Japanese "feature phones" and then Japanese "Galápagos [Android] smart" phones (ガラスマ {garasuma}), was first introduced in 2006. Originally a hardware feature for Docomo only, it is now also available on many KDDI/au and Softbank Android based phones. Sorry, it is not integrated into Apple iPhones. Almost all of Japan's regional IC Card systems were integrated and became cross compatible with each other early this year. In addition to being able to pay for most travel around the nation with Suica, you can also use it for purchases at most convenience stores and many restaurants and shops around Japan. Sorry, the Android Mobile Suica app and widget only works with おサイフケータイ {o-saifu kētai} (Japan-only "mobile wallet" technology) FeliCa hardware integrated phones (exclusive or hybrid NFC models), not non-Japanese Android NFC-only phones.

For those of you that miss the cookies but still want limited edition Penguin goods, Tokyo Station has a shop, "Pensta" (ペンスタ {Pensta}), near the 八重洲南口 {Yaesu Minami-guchi} exit on thje 1st floor, that sells nothing but Suica Penguin accessories.

Answer to the question in the second paragraph: Dokomodake

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

GURUNAVI and ÆON Custanet shut down / replace their FeliCa apps

The mark/logo for Japanese FeliCa
Japanese "Galápagos Smartphones" (abbreviated and called ガラスマ {garasuma} in Japanese), which are Android smartphones with hardware/software features that only apply to the Japanese market. One of the more popular features on these phones is its おサイフケータイ {osaifu kētai} (portable [phone] wallet), which allows apps on the phone to communicate with and store apps on the phones near-field communication chip (which can actually keep working even if the phone is off, the battery is dead, or the device has crashed). Japan's own standard for near-field communication, which pre-dates the rest of the world's technology and is almost just as good but with more support, is FeliCa. Recently, the rest of the world — which is about 10 years behind Japan in adoption of near-field contact technology for consumer use — has adopted NFC as the standard for this, so newer Japanese phones and devices are dual-mode and support both FeliCa and NFC applications and protocols. Unlike the rest of the world in 2014, near-field contact terminals are almost ubiquitous in Japan and can be found in all convenience stores and train stations, many restaurants and stores, and even vending machines and ATMs. Many of the ATMs, such as those provided/owned by 7-Eleven and ÆON, can interact with and charge IC Cards and/or FeliCa phones — charging and checking the balance of nanaco & WAON electronic money respectively

The mobile FeliCa mark
FeliCa and NFC applications are special in that they're not selected or downloaded from the Google Play app store or another sort of traditional Android app install service. You use either search for them and install them using the special app provided with your phone, called appropriately the おサイフケータイ アプリ {o-saifu kētai apuri}, or you interact with them using a web-plug in for the default browser. The newest versions of both of these software support not just FeliCa/NFC on internally in the phone/tablet's back, but NFC applications & data stored in the Type-A and Type-B NFC systems. To download & use the application, your hardware has to support FeliCa or hybrid FeliCa+NFC. To use NFC, you need to have a "pink UIM" (docomo). You can upgrade/exchange your UIM (and keep your existing phone number) for free at an authorized mobile retailer.
the new NFC compatible "pink" (version 5) miniUIM
Chrome's logo
No FeliCa plugin support (yet).
Because the Mobile Chrome for Android browser does not (yet) support plugins, all Galápagos Android 4.0+ (currently "Ice Cream Sandwich", "Jellybean", and "Kit Kat") phones with FeliCa support will have two browsers internally in the firmware, as the legacy browser (which actually uses the same mobile WebKit as the modern mobile Chrome browser: the internal Chromium WebView is based off of Chrome 30); the older browser is kept for compatibility with the FeliCa plugin.

Quite a busy logo
ぐるなび {gurunabi} (derived from 『グルメ』 {"gurume"} meaning "gourmet" and 『ナビ』 {"nabi"} meaning "navigator") is a Yelp!-like portal service used to navigate and find restaurants and bars all over Japan. Tokyo alone has over 80,000 restaurants: almost quadruple that of New York City (19,000), and well over ten times that of London (6,000). GURUNAVI receives its information regarding menus directly from the restaurants, but users do provide reviews.

The restaurants and bars have a separate special portal site, called 『ぐるなび PRO for 飲食店』 {"Gurunabi puro foā inshokuten"} which allows them to manage the content, coupons, menus, and ads for their GURUNAVI presence. And yes, there's a mobile app version.

GURUNAVI has been very successful (they went public in 2008 and are listed on the TSE) and has branched out into reserving all sorts of services in Japan now, from Weddings to Ski Lodges.

They even have a beautiful English site giving advice on restaurants in Japan!

Their mobile FeliCa application, called ぐるなびタッチ {Gurunabi tatchi} (Gurunabi Touch), allowed you to collect points easier swiping ("checking in") via a dedicated FeliCa terminal at participating restaurants. As an additional motivation for checking in, you would receive coupons for the restaurant. GURUNAVI Touch can work as a pure FeliCa on-chip IC Card application, meaning it will work even if your phone is off, but it's designed to work best with its Android restaurant search application.

The legacy GURUNAVI Touch ends service at 11:59pm on June 30th.

A legacy GURUNAVI Touch terminal at a restaurant
GURUNAVI is replacing their "Touch" application with a new system, called "SMART CHECK IN": it will be deployed and available for download into the FeliCa chip on your phone starting June 23rd, and restaurants will start supporting it on July 1st at 10am.

Custanet is a coupon collection service that worked in tandem with phone carrier based email systems and was offered exclusively at ÆON (イオン {Ion}), which is a Japan-based supermarket conglomerate similar to K-Mart, Target, Walmart, and other American big chains. Custanet was run by ÆON's marketing division — its web information and marketing portal being branded "ÆON Square" (イオンスクエア {Ion Sukuea}).

Custanet will stop operations inside the stores on July 31st, and its accompanying "stamp" (スタンプ {sutampu}) service (which allowed you to win things when you checked in at the terminals) will end on September 1st.

ÆON hasn't given up on FeliCa based technology though; in fact, it developed the e-cash — called "electronic money" or 『電子マネー』 {"denshi manē"} in Japanese — system WAON in 2007, which competes with Rakuten's Edy. WAON is preferred by ÆON (even though their Toshiba TEC POS FeliCa terminals accept many other FeliCa payment systems such as QUICPay, iD, as well as Suica & ICOCA) and is used by JAL. Competing Edy is used by ANA.

The Waon mascot and a manual cash charging/conversion machine.
Waon's mascot's name is "Happy Waon" (ハッピーワオン {Happī Waon}), or just "Waon" (ワオン {Waon}
Many mascots in Japan has female companions/partner/sidekick. Waon's is 『エリンちゃん』 {"Erin-chan"}.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

KDDI offer public Wi-Fi free to au smartphone users in Keio train cars

Wi-Fi サービスが利用可能な車両に貼られるステッカー
Sticker at stores/stations/cars showing Wi-Fi support
Starting Tuesday, June 16th, Keio train lines began offering Wi-Fi to all of its smartphone users (Android and iPhone) on the two Keio lines:
  • Keio Line (京王線 {Keio-sen}): 698 cars
  • Inokashira Line (井の頭線 {Inokashira-sen}): 145 cars
The Keio Railway supports much of western Tokyo, with trains running from Shibuya and Shibuya Stations to the western suburbs.

The two main public Wi-Fi services, "au Wi-Fi SPOT" and "Wi2 300", are supported; those who aren't au phone owners but subscribe to the Wi2 service will still be able to access the service. Docomo's Wi-Fi service, "Flets Spot" (フレッツ・スポット {Furettsu·Supotto}), is already supported.

These Wi-Fi services aren't complimentary to the general public: they're complimentary for most Japanese smartphone users. Why offer Wi-Fi to people that already have a LTE or 4G connection? A few reasons:
  • Non-free Wi-Fi is almost always faster and has less latency (even compared to 4G) during rush hour when tens of millions of people are commuting and trying to use their phones all at the same time.
  • The Wi-Fi connection will work not just at stations, but inside tunnels as well.
  • Using the Wi-Fi does not count against monthly quotas your mobile data plan may have.
au Wi-Fi接続ツール
au's background helper app/widget
for Android
Because every carrier's "supplemental" Wi-Fi is not open, all the providers have provided applications (often with Android auto-connect apps/widgets or an automatic iPhone Profile) to allow you to connect to the Wi-Fi almost automatically without needing to authenticate through a "Wi-Fi capture portal".

I habitually connect to docomo Flets Spots — my current provider, although I've used them all — whenever I am at my commuting stations, as getting enough bandwidth to do something intensive (streaming video or updating an app) is very difficult during commuting rush hour.

In a previous post, I criticized the au Wi-Fi for its lack of coverage. It appears that KDDI is working to correct that deficiency by expanding its coverage beyond just au shop stores.

If you are a mobile phone user in Japan subscribed to a Japanese mobile plan and are frustrated by the performance of the network during peak usage times around the morning/evening commutes, you should probably consider configuring your phone to use your carrier's Wi-Fi for its subscribers.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

NOTTV changes channel lineup, offers two free channels starting in July

ノッティー {nottī} ("notty") is NOTTV's mascot
Starting July 1st, NOTTV will change its digital broadcasting lineup, both in number of channels and accessibility. A big change is that in addition to one additional channel, two of the channels will become free. Currently, all three of the channels are premium by subscription only (¥400/month to get all channels, with the billing integrated into your phone bill).

The new channel line up will be:
  • nottv1: premium
  • nottv2: premium
  • nottv3: free view
  • nottv4: free view
The previous three channel lineup was:
  • nottv1: premium
  • nottv2: premium
  • nottv news: premium; 24 hour TBS Newsbird
NOTTV is a digital broadcasting network that is designed exclusively for Japanese Android "Galapagos" (ガラスマ {garasuma}) smart phones and tablets. Currently, it is available only on devices offered by NTT Docomo — probably because the company that runs it, mmbi, is a NTT Group company. Its broadcast range covers about 90% of Japan, including Okinawa. NOTTV became possible when analog television broadcasting stopped in Japan in 2011. It began offering service starting April, 2012.

ANDROID APP ON Google play
Sorry, NOTTV will never be on iPhone
NOTTV is not just software; it requires special hardware and a special antenna. Currently, it's available in about 30 of Docomo's phones and almost 10 of their tablet models. You can add and cancel your NOTTV service to/from your phone bill directly from the application (which includes an addable home screen widget)

NOTTV is similar to Japanese "1seg" (ワンセグ {wan segu}) technology in that it is broadcast digitally OTA using the VHF hi-band space used by regular televisions (which has excellent building wall penetration characteristics). This means that it shares the same telescoping antenna that most 1seg phones have. Unlike 1seg, which is a technology that uses "1 Segment" (out of 13) of a standard Japanese digital HDTV channel, NOTTV doesn't associate with traditional television channels. NOTTV uses a sub-spec of the Japanese digital television standard called ISDB-Tmm. The audio/video digital stream is encrypted MPEG4 AVC/H.264 based.

Like 1seg's XML based BML metadata that displays weather and programming and channel info, guide and other data is sent with the channel. The NOTTV app for Android integrates with both facebook and twitter, so live-tweeting (automatic nottv hashtags are added) of baseball and soccer and other sports is possible.

Japanese commuters with phones
Nobody reads paper anymore.
The big advantage of 1seg and NOTTV for Japanese commuters is it does not suffer from packet competition during congested times of the day (for example, during morning and evening commutes), meaning it can be watched on the train (providing your train is above ground) during rush hour when every mobile device in Japan is trying to receive data at the same time.

The big advantage that NOTTV has over the older 1seg technology is its superior resolution and frame rate: its current three channels broadcast at 720x480 progressively at 30fps. For its "shift-time" programming, it can go up to 1280x720 (but only at 15fps), which is almost ten times the resolution (and considered HDTV quality) of 1seg, which is 320x240 at 15fps.

1seg is a relatively old technology, and on today's high resolution phones, phablets, and tablets with large screens, the superior resolution of NOTTV is immediately noticeable. In addition, the natural frame rate of 30 per second makes watching action, such as sports, much more enjoyable. NOTTV looks good even on a 10 inch screen tablet.

There's a reason this show starts at midnight on Fridays;
it's not because of low ratings.
In addition to showing premium content such as overseas movies / premium (HBO / Showtime / Netflix) based dramas (English is broadcast on a sub-channel) and professional Japanese sports (particularly J-League soccer and NPB) and animé, NOTTV produces a lot of original content that can only be seen on NOTTV: this includes exclusive AKB content (it's sort of known as "The AKB Channel"), as well as shows devoted to smartphone fandom, and shows that, ahem, run late at night whose genre was once big in the nineties in Japan.

Midtown Tower
Mori Tower's rival
Its studios and transmission administration is done from Roppongi's Midtown Tower on the 48th floor. I was given a personal tour of its studios and I was impressed with how much they can do with its small space. It's studios spotlights are LED based because the heat that traditional stage lighting generates would be difficult to keep cool within a normal office building.

Docomo/mmbi's previous NOTTV strategy was to offer it free for the first month when you bought a phone, hoping to hook you on the content so you'd pony up for the service after trying it for a month. The two new free channels suggest they are altering their business model so as to tempt people with the premium content at all times.
mmbi reception at Midtown Tower
mmbi's reception inside Midtown Tower

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Softbank new data plans include data roll over

As expected, Softbank Mobile announced new voice and data plans that directly match Docomo's pricing structure. Softbank's new plans are called Suma-hōudai, a play on smartphone and unlimited (as in tabehōudai). To add some semblance of differentiation, as opposed to just copying exactly what Docomo did, Softbank has added data roll over to their 5 GB and larger Suma-hōudai data plans.

Data Roll Over

Data rolls over in 100 MB increments and is valid for only one month. For example, if you have the 5 GB plan and consume 4,701 MB one particular month, 200 MB will roll over to the next month. (For simplicity, I am assuming that 5 GB is equal to 5,000 MB.) Your quota for the next month would be 5,200 MB. If you again used only 4,701 MB, then the original 200 MB would expire and (I think), another 200 MB would roll over.

I say that I think because that is logically how it should work, but the rules of logic never apply in these situations. Telcoms basically make stuff up as they go along.

Plan Pricing

Aside from the roll over data, everything else is exactly the same as Docomo.
  • Unlimited domestic calling (with 2-year contract):
    • Smartphone: ¥2,700
    • feature phone: ¥2,200
  • Data plans
    • Data Flat Pack 2: 2GB ¥3,500
    • Data Flat Pack 5: 5GB ¥5,000
    • Pack Flat Pack 10: 10GB ¥9,500
    • Pack Flat Pack 15: 15GB ¥12,500
    • Pack Flat Pack 20: 20GB ¥16,000
    • Pack Flat Pack 30: 30GB ¥22,500
  • Additional data: ¥1,000/1GB
  • Share option:
    • Smartphone: ¥500 + ISP fee
    • Tablet: ¥1,700 (newly-introduced bullsh!t base fee) + ¥500 + ISP fee
  • Data discount for multiple lines with 2-year contract:
    • 5GB Plan: -¥300
    • 10GB Plan: -¥1,000
    • 15GB Plan: -¥1,500
    • 20GB Plan: -¥2,000
    • 30GB Plan: -¥3,000

Beware of Data Plan Contracts

These discounts on the data plans are tricky and you should be careful when deciding to take them. As I've explained before, the 2-year contracts are traditionally applied to the voice plan. (Without the 2-year contract, you pay a stupid, ridiculous, unjustifiably high price for the base voice fee. In the case of the new Softbank unlimited voice plan, the monthly cost is ¥4,200 (!) if you don't add a two year contract.)

As long as you keep your line, you can change plans, get a new phone, do whatever you want to your contract, and you will not encounter the early termination fee (ETF). There are very few things that can trigger an ETF for the voice plan, and even if you get charged an ETF, because it is only about ¥10,000, it's still cheaper than paying for about half a year with no contract.

However, if you also add a contract on your data plan, the actions on your part that can trigger an ETF increase dramatically.

Imagine you share a 5 GB plan between a phone and a tablet. Then you get a new tablet that is wifi-only and you just tether to your phone. You no longer need the extra SIM card and you cancel it. There is a 96% chance that you will get hit with the ETF because there is only 1 month out of 24 that you can cancel the two-year, auto-renewing contract on your data plan.

So to save ¥300 each month, which only totals ¥7,200 in two years, by signing a contract to keep two SIM cards, you just got hit with a ¥10,000 fee. Not to mention that now have not just one, but TWO contracts THAT DO NOT NECESSARILY HAVE THE SAME START AND END DATES making it that much more difficult, confusing, and costly to cancel service entirely.