Google Phone in Japan?: Largest Japanese Cell Phone Carrier to Adopt Android OS

According to the latest reports, Japan’s largest cell phone carrier will be using  Google’s Android OS for mobile devices which is in turn based on WebKit of all things.

NTT DoCoMo Inc. will remove advanced functions and services from its cell phones’ operating software, such as the ability to connect to the Internet, enabling the nation’s handset manufacturers to simultaneously design low-function, low-price handsets for overseas markets and high-function, high-price handsets for domestic distribution based on the same software, The Yomiuri Shimbun learned Saturday.

The decision came as several manufacturers have withdrawn from the saturated domestic cell phone market that currently offers little prospect of generating profits.

DoCoMo hopes the decision will help the handset manufacturers expand internationally, while also expecting it to contribute to its own overseas strategies.

According to the carrier, functions to be removed from operating software will include i-mode, Internet connection services, and FeliCa, an integrated circuit card service that enables handsets to be used for electronic payments.

The company plans to introduce Android, jointly developed with Google Inc. as the new operating software by 2010.

DoCoMo phones to get simpler OS


It’s great to see Japan’s largest cell phone carrier wake up to reality but unfortunately this move comes more than a decade late.  The move will supposedly open the market for Japanese cell phone manufacturers to approach a more global audience.  Of course, manufacturers already have wider access to global markets since Japanese cell networks went 2.5G using CDMA/WCDMA technology.

Yet, the Japanese cell phone market remains an anomaly and obstacle to cell phone manufacturers reaching a global market as seen by Sony Ericsson’s recent review of their relationship with DoCoMo.  Right now Japan has three dominant cell phone carriers, DoCoMo (a spin off of the former national telecom NTT) and AU (a private sector joint venture) and SoftBank (which went from a Japanese company to Vodafone back to Japanese).  Manufacturers are more or less tied to the cell phone companies they supply phones to.  The carriers dictate the specifications and more or less control the model supplied.  So, in many cases manufacturers have to differentiate cell phone models per carrier.  These contractual obligations as well as Japan’s communication specifications isolated Japanese manufacturers from a global market while keeping global manufacturers from reaching a Japanese audience.

As any casual observer will note, Japanese cell phones are more advanced and feature rich than your typical smart phone found abroad (not to mention more styles).  Technology such as i-mode pioneered cell phone web-browsing before it reached critical mass abroad.  The fact that Japan shied away from cross-carrier SMS compatibility also propelled Japan’s widespread adoption of cell email as the dominant form of text messaging too.  Even with the advent of the iPhone, I think it will be a long time before you can watch TV on your phone or get 3G-level bandwidth on it.

However, I honestly don’t see Android really gaining any real ground even if DoCoMo was to give it a full push.  The handset market is really cut throat for the typical manufacturer with low margins and lots of restrictions.  The move to linux is welcome and understandable but how many companies can add the touch and flair to it like Apple did with the iPhone.  Plus, the iPhone is more or less a complete OS X system optimised for mobile devices.  There’s a certain degree of feature parity between OS X and it’s little cousin.  As phones gain more disk space and processing while reducing size, the Android might be too limited for future needs.

The other thing is that Google really doesn’t have a major, practical stake in this.  It doesn’t affect the bottom line like search so I don’t see them committing major resources unless they’re looking to buy a cell phone carrier ala SoftBank of Japan.  I just don’t see the point of adopting Android or for handset manufacturers to team up with competition to lower the barrier of entry into an already crowded and lacklustre field while committing precious engineering resources to bring third party code up to par with what they developed with their own resources.

I’ve got my fingers crossed.