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Japan has been grooming consumers for years
RIDING on one of Tokyo's metropolitan subways anytime any day, you are most likely to see a futuristic scene that will be common across Asia pretty soon.
Most passengers are on their mobile gadgets, reading or sending email, watching sports broadcasts, checking the exact spot where their partner is now via GPS (global positioning system), reading newspapers, googling maps, drafting a speech or editing their home video, if not playing games, taking pictures or listening to music -- all on a single gadget.
More than 10 million Japanese -- one out of every 12 Japanese, including babies -- are hooked today on smart phones, as estimated by marketers. Their new life style is fast spreading into every corner of Japanese everyday life.
Japan's smart phone sales -- 23.3 million this year -- account for 56 per cent of the total mobile phone sales of the year, according to MM Research Institute.
The think-tank in Tokyo forecasts the smart phone market, visibly multiplied in size since last year, will make the mainstream in the mobile telecommunication landscape within the next few years.
By 2015, the annual smart phone turnover will expand to 30.5 million and in 2016, smart phone subscribers will rise to 70 million, it predicts.
Japan had groomed consumers for years for today's explosive popularity of smart phones. The first generation of Internet-capable mobile phones arrived in Japan in 1999 with the popular "i-mode" service of Japan's leading Internet provider, NTT Docomo.
And its new models and those by competing providers emerged soon after.
Younger consumers, even teenagers, quickly developed their finger touch skills on cheaper texting, emailing and online games even before they learned to use regular computers.
Japanese mobile phone producers also developed versatile applications and people began using them as a digital purse (you can pay on credit at shops), train/bus pass, music and video players or loud emergency alarm as well as for TV viewing and cyberspace surfing.
Today, Japan has 120 million mobile phone subscribers -- some have more than one -- the number equalling the entire Japanese population.
Japan's younger mobile phone users, now grown up, are today a new, skilled, web-2.0-literate generation that are already familiar with social networking activities.
They had been well prepared for the world's more IT-sophisticated tools, by the time the first iPhone (3G) of Apple Computer arrived in Japan in 2009, a year after its debut in the United States.
"I cannot survive a day without the diverse applications of my smart phone," says one Tokyo university student.
He not only checks the campus website, but also downloads favourite music pieces, designs high-quality photographs he took with it, emails them to friends, checks Wikipedia immediately when he needs to, gets navigated while driving, and plays social games via the Net.
"It is not only a tool of communication or a simple PDA (personal digital assistant); it is me -- or an extended brain of mine."
Smart phones proliferated visibly in Japan in 2009-2010, when annual shipments multiplied more than 10 times.
After iPhone and Blackberry and other world-standard models arrived, models operated by "Android", the versatile Google-developed operating system, models joined the market.
Japan is today a battlefield like anywhere else between iPhones (iPhone 4S, the latest released in October) and Android-run models. With available applications skyrocketing to hundreds of thousands, the Android family is eclipsing iPhones in Japan this year, it is believed.
And there will be more and more activities made possible with new applications or attachment devices for smart phone users.
One recent controversial application is a GPS-based tracking system that enables a smart phone user to track the exact location of another phone, such as one's girlfriend or spouse, all the time.
Some find it convenient; others annoying. One device is recently welcome: a radiation counter, something badly needed in Japan since the nuclear power accident triggered by the traumatic quake and tsunami in March.
Connected to a smart phone, the little device in a similar size will indicate the data on the smart phone.
The vastly popular smart phones, however, have created a visible social problem, too.
Smart phone users tend to concentrate on looking down at the phone screen, even while walking on the street or at railway station platforms.
Three smart phone users actually fell down from station platforms in Tokyo area between April and September, according to a government survey. They would also slow down suddenly at email buzz, bumping other people, baby carts or bicycles or hitting doors.
Commentators suggest phone producers need to install a system so that users cannot use the Internet while walking.