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Doing It Right

In fact, he’s building it already. Parts of DoCoMo’s vision, such as the payment and identification schemes, are already being tested; more will be rolled out as the FeliCa phones, which will probably cost $200 to $300, are introduced this summer. To Morita, the barriers to full deployment are more societal than technological. “We could do most of these things today,” he says. “And we would be doing them today, if we weren’t worried about the security implications. And the privacy issues, too.”

Because Japan has more experience with mobile communications than the United States, it has virtually eliminated some cell-phone annoyances that continue to plague Americans. With the advent of text-messaging, says Ito, the anthropologist, “people just don’t talk on their phones on the subway anymore.” To avoid the nuisance of pealing phones in public spaces, she says, more and more Japanese “turn off the ringers when they leave their homes in the morning, and the ringers stay off all day long.”

The results of this socialization process are visible on any train platform in Japan. At any given time, a large minority of the waiting commuters-perhaps even half-will be using their phones. But almost nobody will actually be speaking on them. Instead, they will be sending or reading messages, checking weather or traffic websites, playing games, or (apparently a particular favorite among women) eliciting predictions about future romance from online fortunetelling programs.

To DoCoMo, the people staring into their phones are both an opportunity and a worry. The opportunity is to find more ways for them to use their phones, up- and downloading more packets of data. (DoCoMo charges roughly two-tenths of a cent for every 128 bits that go in or out of its phones; users may pay a penny per text message or a few cents to download a Web page.) One big new opportunity is shopping. Online users will be able to find items on i-mode websites and immediately buy them with digital cash stored directly in their handsets. Offline, in the real world, DoCoMo is focusing first on train stations, which are full of restaurants, department stores, and kiosks that sell the small, beautifully wrapped gifts of food that lubricate social occasions in Japan. In both cases, DoCoMo expects to generate more revenue as it sells more bits.

The peril is that as the phones grow more powerful, they will become targets for thieves and con artists. “We don’t want someone to walk around the platform with a stolen card-reader, downloading everyone’s money,” Morita says. “If people begin to think [the new phones] are insecure or violate their privacy, they will never use them.”

Critical to the security of the new system, he says, is the short transmission range of the FeliCa cards-only 10 centimeters, which makes it difficult for thieves to scan them. But according to Bruce Schneier, chief technical officer of Counterpane Internet Security in Mountain View, CA, this isn’t much of a defense. “People will steal and hack the card readers to make them more powerful,” he says. “You could probably get the read distance up to a couple of meters, and then you would be able to rob a roomful of people just by walking around them.”

Nonetheless, Schneier is cautiously enthusiastic about the phonesmart card combination. In 1999, he cowrote a now classic analysis of smart cards’ security weaknesses. “Most of the bad things happen because there is no good way of telling who the card belongs to-who is supposed to be responsible for it,” he says. But DoCoMo controls the FeliCa phones. “If somebody steals your money, they have to collect it through the phone company,” he says. “They have to explain what they are doing trying to get your money, and that’s hard.”

The flip side of DoCoMo’s control is that the company also controls the records of users’ behavior-not only what phone calls they make, but what e-mails they send, where they go (subway fares), what they buy (FeliCa purchases), and a host of other things. If the phones are successful, the personal information compiled by DoCoMo will grow to volumes guaranteed to alarm civil libertarians.

But Schneier downplays the privacy concerns, arguing that people have already given up control of their personal data to innumerable banks, credit agencies, and retail establishments. “Something like this is going to happen, and everyone knows it,” he says. “These Japanese companies have tremendously competent people. There’s a good chance they might do it right.”

Back at DoCoMo, Natsuno is confident that the company will not only do ubiquitous computing right but do it first, and do it profitably. U.S. companies are “years behind,” he says-but not because Japan’s technology is more advanced. Pointing to the automatic toll-collection devices in many U.S. cars, he says, “You could have put those in cell phones and built on that to introduce Web services, or almost any of the other things we have done.” The real reason for DoCoMo’s lead, Natsuno believes, “is that we have a business model. We will give the consumer ubiquitous computing and digital money and all of those other things the engineers want. But we will do it by giving people a way to get through the turnstile faster or to arrive at a house that is cooled to the right temperature and has a movie ready to play on the TV.”

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