Forget new electronic wizardry. The latest trend in Japan's mobile communications is the "lifestyle" phone.
Like the feminine handset. Concluding that the ordinary cellphone, however petite, is too clunky for a lady of high style, NTT DoCoMo Inc., Japan's largest mobile operator, turned to fashion designer Momoko Ikuta to create a phone expressly for women. The result is a handset that is curved at one end like a marquise-cut diamond -- the perfect shape, Ms. Ikuta thought, to flatter a woman's face when held to the ear. She then added special software, such as a seasonal recipe guide and a menstrual-cycle tracker -- and a button that orders up a fake incoming call a few seconds later to cut short a bad date. "People change their clothes every day, but a cellphone is the object closest to their daily lives," the designer says. Her creation will start selling in Japan in September.
Until recently, technology was enough to excite most cellphone users, who tended to choose the smallest handsets with the most advanced screen, camera resolution and multimedia features like video and music downloads. But many users have become both jaded and perplexed by technological advances, and they are demanding simpler phones with more personality.
The move is also a reaction by providers -- who in Japan work carefully with handset makers on the design of phones -- to a near-saturated market. In Japan, about 70% of the population already owns a mobile phone, so the only way to get new customers is to offer a product that peels them away from a rival. "Competition has grown so intense that you need more variety in terms of design and function," says Kiyohito Nagata, managing director of products at DoCoMo.
That's one reason the trend is most pronounced in Japan. But some U.S. providers are catching on too. Sprint Nextel Corp., though it hasn't gone as far as the DoCoMo feminine makeover, has launched four pink handsets for women over the past four months.
Many U.S. carriers have started making phones aimed at children. Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA launched two limited-edition Sidekick phones last winter, designed in cooperation with Liz Claiborne Inc.'s Juicy Couture casual-clothing brand and a tattoo artist known as Mister Cartoon.
Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, a London-based joint venture between Sony Corp. and Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson, has introduced Walkman phones that double as digital music players, and Cyber-shot phones with higher-resolution cameras in global markets. Outside Japan, says Tomokazu Tajima, a Sony Ericsson general manager in Tokyo, "we're just starting to think about what more we can do to grab their attention."
KDDI Corp. kicked off the Japanese competition in October 2003 with Infobar, a phone shaped like a candy bar. Compared with other phones around at the time, the Infobar was low-tech and had just a small screen and simple camera. But it grabbed the attention of fashion-conscious Japanese with its glossy red, white and black exterior and keypads like shiny tiles.
This spring, KDDI released a new mobile phone for preteen girls created by industrial designer Fumie Shibata. She designed the phones in the image of desserts like macaroons and cakes. The keypads were laid out clearly for beginners, and the speakers were shaped like flowers. To make the phones affordable for girls with small allowances, Ms. Shibata designed simple stickers as optional decorations. "We wanted the phone to fit among the girls' other belongings," she says.
Customers love the new choices. Mayumi Ito, a 23-year-old office worker, thought about a Walkman phone, but she already had an iPod music player. She rejected another model because it didn't have a subdisplay on the outside to show date and time, making it "too plain-looking."
After a two-week search, she decided on a waterproof, shockproof phone by Casio Computer Co. popular among construction workers, backpackers and even phone addicts, who want to take it into the shower. She isn't planning to use it in rugged terrain though. "The look is most important to me," she says.
Other striking handsets on offer include DoCoMo's "earth-friendly" phone, whose plastic casing is made from natural materials such as corn and fibers from the kenaf plant. DoCoMo also sells a phone the size of a business card manufactured by Sony Ericsson. Vodaphone, Japan's third-largest operator, which was recently acquired by Softbank Corp. from Britain's Vodafone Group PLC, sells a phone with a television-quality flat-panel screen and built-in digital-TV receiver made by Sharp Corp.
Some phones help the very young or old. Children can now carry phones equipped with global-positioning technology that lets parents keep track of them from their own phones. For seniors, phones come equipped with louder volume settings and bigger buttons and screen fonts.
"Consumers used to be satisfied with a phone that met just some of their needs," said Koji Otsuka, general manager of product planning at KDDI. "But now that they're onto their second or third phones, their tastes are more sophisticated."
These new models do not necessarily mean bigger profits for the makers and the providers: A greater number of models tends to mean fewer buyers for each one. DoCoMo, for example, introduced 38 new models in the fiscal year ended March 2006, compared with 15 models in fiscal 2000. Fewer models are selling more than two million units -- benchmark for a best seller -- saysDoCoMo product manager Mr. Nagata.
What's more, the new phones can be expensive. Most cost operators more than $400 apiece, and they sell them to consumers at huge discounts. Sony Ericsson's Walkman phone -- which features a digital camera, enough memory to store 630 songs and a battery that can play 30 hours of music -- was on sale for just one yen (less that one U.S. cent) to new KDDI customers at a Tokyo consumer-electronics store less than two months after its launch.
But now the design genie is out of the bottle, customers are getting used to having choices. The designer of the feminine phone, Ms. Ikuta, went as far as choosing colors used in makeup products that suit Asian skin and look good when a woman is speaking on the phone -- mint green, as used in concealer makeup; orangey coral often seen in nail polish and blush powder; and white with a bit of pink and "champagne gold" to make skin shimmer.