A week in tech

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A round-up of all the latest tech news.

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• KDDI Corp. announced plans to introduce 3D maps in its EZnaviWalk road guide for pedestrians using the carrier's au mobile phone service. The service will provide 3D maps that reproduce the actual buildings at intersections, enabling users to more easily determine what direction they need to go in. The product is seen as a response to feedback that users had a difficult time orienting themselves with the 2D maps. The 3D maps, based on data from Zenrin, are expected to provide faithful reproduction of buildings, billboards and streetlights. The 3D maps will be provided at major intersections in metropolitan Tokyo and designated regional cities. The service is priced at 210 yen ($1.7) a month and will first be offered to users of the W43T handset to be released in late April. KDDI said that beginning in late May, users of existing handsets capable of processing 3D images will also be able to download and use the software.

• NTT DoCoMo announced that it has agreed to buy a 2 percent stake in Lawson. The deal is seen as part of a tie-up to enable the use of mobile phone electronic money services at Lawson's convenience store chain nationwide. The deal is valued at about 9 billion yen ($76.4 million). Lawson said it will sell the shares out of its holdings in its own shares to NTT DoCoMo. Observers say the move is in line with NTT DoCoMo's recent strategy of seeking new ways to make money as its revenues decline. The company is strengthening services based on cell phones equipped with "mobile wallets," which have built-in chips for storing electronic money and function as credit cards. NTT DoCoMo and Lawson jointly stated that the combination of DoCoMo's 50 million mobile phone subscribers and 8,300 Lawson stores is expected to provide convenient, value-added services.

• NTT DoCoMo and KDDI Corp, Japan's biggest wireless operators announced the deployment of free digital television on cell phones. Phones have already been introduced that can receive the service called One-Seg, short for "one segment," which takes its name from the one frequency segment out of 13 allocated to terrestrial digital broadcasting that is reserved for mobile phones. Industry observers are saying that carriers are racing to add new functions such as music players and digital TV to retain users on rising competition in Japan's 8.5 trillion yen ($72.4 billion) cell-phone market. New operators such as Softbank Corp. and eAccess Ltd. are preparing to offer services to win users from DoCoMo and KDDI, which together control 83 percent of 90 million wireless users. DoCoMo and KDDI have given no estimates on how many digital TV-enabled handsets they expect to ship. DoCoMo began selling a ``one-seg'' phone this month made by Matsushita Electric Industrial for about 35,000 yen ($297). KDDI also began selling two models with the function, one from Hitachi, and Sanyo Electric, in February and December.

• Toppan Printing announced a new product in the form of a bendable type of electronic paper based on transparent thin film transistors (TFTs). The company sees the utility of the new e-paper, which is lightweight and relatively shock resistance, in finding applications as the screen for electronic products like phones and computers, as well as for larger applications like poster boards. Toppan already manufactures some electronic materials including the color filters for LCD televisions, but in the future the company plans to make thin displays itself based on e-paper. The prototype e-paper is 2 inches on a side and has a resolution of 4,800 pixels. At a thickness of some 320 microns, it is a sixth of the width of today's LCD panels. The prototype was made using the vacuum film-growth technology used in the semiconductor industry. Toppan said it is now working on printing technologies that can reduce manufacturing costs by more than a factor of 10. The company's goal is to have prototype e-paper products in fiscal 2008.

Information Technology
• NTT DoCoMo announced that Aeon, a major supermarket operator and others will adopt its iD mobile phone credit service, which allows customers to pay simply by passing their phones in front of special readers. Together with Aeon, am/pm Japan and Kinki Nippon Tourist are expected to offer the service. NTT DoCoMo is developing iD as a credit brand, having jointly established it with Sumitomo Mitsui Card Co. Aeon plans to begin adding the readers to group stores including Jusco stores starting in July, while am/pm plans to install the readers in all 1,350 convenience stores by the end of 2006. Kinki Nippon plans to install the readers at eight locations in the Tokyo area starting in May and then gradually expand use to its roughly 350 branches nationwide.


• Lycos, a leading media destination for creators and consumers of quality content, announced the launching of Lycos Phone, considered to be the Internet's first-ever VoIP softphone application that has entertainment features. Done in partnership with Globe7, users of Lycos Phone can make free calls from PC to PC. They can also make free PC to PC video calls and receive unlimited free incoming calls from any landline or mobile phone, from around the world. Under the offering, users also receive 100 free minutes of PC to landline and PC to mobile phone calls, and can earn additional free minutes through various promotional offers with Lycos Phone. Lycos said that its alliance with Globe7 allows it to leverage Globe7's real-time communications infrastructure to provide other innovative services like Internet Protocol television. Another unique aspect also of the offering is that it allows a free US phone number, free fax and free voicemail to email. Globe7 supports Windows 2000 and XP. Future enhancements will support Linux, Mac OS, Palm OS and Pocket PC.

• SK Telecom, KTF and LG Telecom the country’s top domestic providers, forecast that most customers will go for low- to mid-price handsets, which retail for between W300,000 ($300) and W500,000 ($500). Despite this announcement, mobile phone manufacturers appear to be pinning their hopes on high-end handsets priced at W600,000 ($600) or more. Samsung Electronics for one said that new subsidies were likely to result in a big increase in the sale of premium mobile phones. To meet this demand, Samsung is planning to release more DMB and slim phones. A survey involving a small sample seems to support the projection of the phone makers, showing that a significant portion will buy DMB-equipped phones now that subsidies are on offer. Such handsets currently cost from W500,000 to W700,000 ($500-700). In a separate report, SK Telecom has asked manufacturers to share the cost of the discounts, which are now legal for long-term users, but Samsung has reportedly refused. Other handset manufacturers, LG Electronics, Pantech and Motorola among them, were said to have accepted SKT's demand for fear that the company could stop buying handsets from them. KTF and LG Telecom have so far made no such request.

• SK Telecom announced its new offering in the form of a global multimedia messaging service that would allow customers to send multimedia messages including pictures and long text to mobile users abroad. The service starts in this month for China (China Mobile, China Unicom) and is seen as spreading to 22 countries in Europe and Asia including Germany and Hong Kong within two months. The areas of North and South America will be covered within the first half of this year. SK Telecom said the service will be W500 ($0.5) for sending one message. There will be charges for the receiver following the local operator's rate.

• LG Electronics, the world’s fourth-largest cell phone producer, announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with KTF, the nation’s second largest wireless carrier, for the acquisition of KTF Technologies. KTF Technologies is a handset-making unit of KTF, which retains a controlling 75-percent stake in the affiliate established in October 2001. The market value of the firm is estimated at around W150 billion ($153.2 million). It sold 810,000 cell phones last year to generate about W300 billion ($312.5 million) in turnover and W10.5 billion ($10.7 million) in net profit. Even as the details of the deal have yet to be finalized, market observers are saying there is a likelihood that LG will eventually snap up KTF Technologies. In the event that LG gets KTF Technologies, the deal would create the second huge merger in less than half a year, following Pantech Group’s acquisition of SK Teletech. Industry experts say that the mergers and acquisitions are the result of intense competition in the country’s mobile phone market. Out of the country’s 48 million population, more than 38 million are subscribers to mobile telephone services.

• Pantech Group announced that it is making inroads into Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, with the introduction of four GSM phones including a 2-megapixel camera phone. The devices were released through Glorystar, Vietnam’s second largest distributor. The four models to debut in Vietnam have already been released in Russia, Brazil and Mexico. As Vietnam is an open market where 95 percent of handsets are sold through major distributors, close partnership with a large distribution company like Glorystar is necessary for the success in the cell phone business in the nation. Since starting export to Vietnam in July last year, Pantech Group said it is going to expand shipment to accomplish the goal of supplying 100,000 units for Vietnam and 500,000 units for South-East Asia this year.

Media, Entertainment and Gaming
• NHN Games announced that it would start closed beta service of its new MMORPG game, R2 (Reign of Revolution), next month. R2 is a traditional 3D MMORPG based on the medieval times. In preparation for the testing, NHN opened up a teaser site on its Hangame portal. NHN Games said that compared to Arch Lord, which is aimed at general users, R2 is more for the mania gamers.

• Texas Instruments, the No.3 semiconductor maker in the US, announced the opening of a research centre in Samsung-dong in southern Seoul, making it the 12th foreign information technology research centre to have been set up in Korea. The TI Wireless Technology Centre will be devoted to developing mobile multimedia platforms, which the Ministry of Information and Communication has identified as a new growth engine for South Korea. The center was set up in partnership with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. It is expected to launch a project to develop next-generation mobile multimedia platforms that can receive various forms of broadcasting through mobile phones. The country’s Information Ministry revealed its plans to offer W23.5 billion ($24 million) for the project by 2010, a sum that the U.S. firm agreed to match. There are, at present, 11 other global companies, including Intel, HP, IBM and Microsoft that operate research centers in collaboration with the Information Ministry.
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