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Wednesday, June 15, 2011



Japan to finally get cross-carrier SMS

If you were to say to someone from overseas: "Soon you will be able to send texts via SMS (Short Message Service) to anyone with a cellphone in Japan," they may ask, "What are you talking about? You mean you couldn't do it before?!"

Outside Japan, SMS has been a popular cellphone feature for many years. SMS may even be more popular than voice calls in some regions and among younger people. According to New York-based market research firm ABI Research, the number of SMS texts sent this year is expected to hit 7 trillion, from among the 4.2 billion mobile phone users worldwide.

However, not many of those trillions of texts have been circulated within Japan — though that could be set to change.

On June 1, Japanese cellphone carriers Docomo, KDDI, SoftBank Mobile and eAccess (Emobile) issued a joint press release, which announced that from July 13 their Short Message Services will be interconnected. The agreement was first announced in September 2009, so it has taken almost two years to implement.

The announcement means that all cellphone users, regardless of which service provider they are with, will be able to exchange SMS texts with people on other cellphone networks. Until now this is something that has been impossible in Japan.

In Japan, emails sent from cellphones have traditionally been a much more popular form of communication. Many users use a carrier-provided email address on email applications built into their cellphones.

The advantage of SMS is that you only need to know the receiver's phone number in order to send a message. Previously, however, in Japan you also needed to make sure that the person you were sending to was using the same carrier as you, which made SMS pretty inconvenient. However, SMS has been used by some people who had unlimited text packages on their plans and have friends or family on the same network.

There are reasons why the use of SMS is like this in Japan.

Originally, SMS was a part of the GSM standard used by cellphone providers in Europe and North America. However, Japan adopted its own standard (PDC), which had no built-in SMS function. Instead, Japanese carriers — starting with Docomo in 1999 — chose to support Internet-based email; though early versions limited the length of messages. Carriers lifted that kind of restriction on message length as technology improved, memory got bigger and services faster, so now you can send 5,000-character emails with photos, movies and decorations attached. And in fact it was these things that once made Japanese cellphones seem so much more advanced than those elsewhere.

But with the rise in popularity of smartphones, SMS has become another so-called global standard — even though it is inferior to email. In which case, perhaps it is about time Japan joined the rest of the world. So will Japanese start using SMS en masse? Perhaps not.

In Japan, the people you message are your network. Your cellphone probably already stores your friends' email addresses, and actually in Japan many people only know casual friends by their email address — this may be because the most common way to exchange details is by the infrared receivers built in to Japanese cellphones, and many people create special profiles to use for such occasions that don't include phone numbers, so as to avoid being hassled by unwanted voice calls.

Another reason SMS may not take off in Japan is that they can only convey 160 characters (or 70 Japanese characters), which is too short for people who are accustomed to being able to write emails thousands of characters long — though not many people actually write that much. Cellphone email also supports emoji (emoticons) and decomail (illustrations), which are an integral part of any Japanese girl's messages, (^o^).

Most mobile web services are also designed with cellphone email in mind. For example, when registering for a service, you will be required to enter a cellphone email address — there are many people who don't use PCs, so for them a cellphone email address is their primary address.

Also the fees to send international SMS messages are still high. It costs ¥50 to ¥100 per message from Japan, which is 10 to 20 times more expensive than domestic SMS. But as fewer Japanese are traveling overseas these days, texting internationally may not be needed much anyway.

Docomo plans to lower its SMS fee from ¥5.25 to ¥3.15 per message — the same level as KDDI and SoftBank, which is good news for SMS users. But for many people, email is still a cheaper option because carriers' fixed-rate data plans — which are a must when you use mobile web services — cover email, but not SMS. More than half of Docomo users are using fixed-rate plans for email and mobile websites already. For these kind of users, sending another email will not add any cost to their bill but sending an SMS text will.

Taking all this into consideration, I can't really see why the carriers are bothering to create intercarrier-SMS. And I don't think people in Japan will be dumping their cellphone email to jump on the SMS bandwagon anytime soon.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com A Japanese version of this article is available on his blog at akimoto.jp. You can follow him @akky on Twitter.

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