Mobile company scores hit in Japan
by OLIVIA ANDREWS
A cell phone ringing in tune to a hit song is plain boring in wireless-loving
Japan: trendsetters are showing off ringtones that copy the voice of Mona Lisa
or a roar of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The technology, which is similar to what's used by criminologists to figure out
voices based on skull shapes, is just one of the just-for-fun mobile-content
offerings from Index Corp.
The Tokyo-based startup has grown over the eight years since its founding into
one of Japan's most successful companies at a time when the country is long
stuck in the doldrums.
And Index president, Yoshimi Ogawa is, at 37, the youngest woman to ever head a
listed Japanese company.
More than 82 million people have mobile phones in Japan, or two-thirds of the
population. Many are using their handsets to exchange email, search for
restaurants and look up train schedules. Almost all the new models have a tiny
The Index office is bustling with about 130 workers, some in sweat shirts and
dyed hair that would certainly be frowned upon in Japan's stodgy mainstream
The company is brimming with ideas.
One service allows gamers to practise their fingerings and reaction time for
pachinko - Japanese pinball machines - on their cell phone buttons.
Another allows people to check rental videos using an infrared connection from
their cell phones.
Index sells a home-security system with a digital camera so cell phones can be
used to check on pets or possible intruders.
People pay an average ¥1000 ($A12.45) a month for such mobile phone services and
another Y500 ($A6.25) for cell-phone email, adding up to a fifth of an average
Index has attracted some six million people with its more than 100 services,
offering everything from video-game downloads and online shops for perfume and
jewellery to information about idol stars, horoscopes and TV shows - all keeping
up with the tastes of teens and the young at heart.
Each service costs from ¥100 (80 US cents) to ¥300 ($A3.75) a month. About 10
per cent of that fee goes to the telecommunications company, but Index gets the
For the fiscal year which ended on August 31, 2002, Index posted ¥556 million
($A6.92 million) in profit, more than double the previous year. Sales nearly
tripled to ¥9.7 billion ($A120.8 million).
Ogawa, the Index president, who had to serve tea in accordance with Japanese
custom at her first job at a trading company, is now featured in magazines and
newspapers as a role model for this nation's increasingly ambitious women.
She was chosen this year's Woman of the Year by a magazine published by Japan's
top business daily, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
"To come up with hit products, a company needs people with talent and the
sensibility for a totally new point of view to create something out of nothing,"
she said. "Management's job is to build the team work."
Index is venturing into areas outside the cell phone.
It developed with toy maker Takara Co a gadget called Bowlingual that deciphers
the barks, growls and emotions of a dog.
Attach a microphone on the dog's collar, and phrases like "I can't stand it," or
"I have a favour to ask," pop up on the machine's display.
The ¥14,800 ($A185) Bowlingual, which Index officials acknowledge was a
far-fetched gamble even for them, was a surprise hit last year, selling 300,000
in six months. It goes on sale in the United States in August for $US120
"You have to be careful not to go a step ahead of the consumer but to go just
half a step ahead of the consumer," says Index senior managing director
Watanabe wants to expand the Bowlingual idea to allow pet owners to talk to
their dog using a mobile phone or an internet-linking TV.
Index is also preparing to take its mobile business abroad and has its eyes
especially on the burgeoning Chinese mobile market, where people seem more
receptive than Westerners to the idea of the cool cell phone.
Index has set up offices in the United States and Britain, ready to step in once
people warm up to mobile cybersurfing. Index already offers a ringtone service
in France although the selections are limited compared to what's available in
Scientific backing and the semblance of realism are critical, Index says.
In coming up with Santa Claus's voice for the ringtones, it worked off a
portrait in Finland and used voice-montage technology from a Tokyo lab. The
painting by Leonardo da Vinci is behind Mona Lisa's voice.
"I'm the kind of person who wants to have something weird and be different from
everyone else," says 24-year-old bartender Daisuke Niwano, who has Mona Lisa,
dolphin yelps and techno music for ringtones. "I love them."