DoCoMo Opens Its First North American Shop–And A Glimpse Into The Future

For handset-philes, it was an event worthy of the live ice-sculpting show and the three-man ribbon cutting ceremony. DOCOMO, the big Japanese mobile service provider and phone seller, opened its first continental U.S. shop in New York on Friday with the goal of servicing Japanese customers in America. But the move could prime future American consumers, and thus marketers, by whetting their appetites for extreme phones and amenities.

The main goal of DOCOMO USA’s Support Desk New York–a mini service desk and handset gallery, tucked in a corner of the Kinokuniya book store on Avenue of the Americas/6th Avenue–is to help Japanese expats and travelers, DOCOMO Vice President Masayuki Kimura told me. The DOCOMO shop will help customers who moved here for business or school to apply for U.S. mobile phone service. (Japanese-language applications can be placed on T-mobile phones.) It will also¬†assist tourists in providing support for DOCOMO customers traveling overseas, helping subscribers with international roaming services, offering a free battery charging service, and helping those whose¬†cell phones get stolen or lost.

And when expats decide to return home, they can peruse the phone gallery, pick out a handset and a service plan–and then pick up their new phone, ready to go, when they land at Narita airport. Hence the gallery, which is like a candy store for anyone who digs the latest and greatest in cell phones.

Perusing the DOCOMO display is like riding a time machine, since Japanese mobile technology is many years ahead of that in North America (and at least a couple of years ahead of the rest of the world, except maybe Korea). What’s hot? Slider and flip phones whose screens can then be turned horizontally, to best optimize mobile TV–and, I’d assume, mobile Internet. Other phones make an ultra fashion statement, with fab details such as leather-like finishes, entirely mirrored surfaces, or bright primary colors on toy-like devices.

But turn them on, and features like television, GPS positioning, and advanced email and Internet software will have a marketer wide-eyed at the possible new ways to reach consumers. It’s proof positive that we mobile evangelists aren’t cock-eyed optimists–what they propose will happen, already has.

Sure, it’s not a mere matter of importing eye-popping handsets into the United States. Japan uses a W-CDMA network that’s unique to that country (and was developed by NTT DOCOMO), so their phones traditionally don’t work anywhere else unless they’re specially built to do do so. “Because of the different technologies, TV [and other services] is a big challenge,” Mr. Kimura noted. Still, DOCOMO sees the potential for its handsets in the American market. Perhaps by working with cellular providers here to make sure DOCOMO phones will work on their networks? Mr. Kimura replied, “We are exploring if it’s possible.”

The vice president knows that non-Japanese phone enthusiasts will be drawn to the New York service desk, which I’m sure will attract a much larger number of visitors than DOCOMO’s similar support desk in Hawaii. “People always want to look at new Japanese phones, and what’s new in Japanese culture,” Mr. Kimura said. And today’s Japanese phone culture may will be tomorrow’s phone culture everywhere else.