8 years since commercial start of location based services (LBS) in Japan in July 2001

It will soon be 8 years since DoCoMo started commercial location based services (LBS) for mobile phones in Japan in July 2001. During these 8 years, Japan’s mobile LBS industry has grown and a range of differentiated mobile LBS services has emerged – indicative of how the LBS industry might develop in other countries in the next few years (Read our LBS-FAQ here, and our mobile LBS report here).

NOKIA’s recent acquisition of Navteq for US$ 8.1 Billion has drawn much attention to LBS for mobile phones.

The world’s first commercial location based service (LBS) for mobile phones – “i-Area” – was rolled out by DoCoMo in Japan in July 2001 – eight years ago! – is still going strong, and for some time also includes location dependent mobile search: you type “ramen” into the search box and back comes a list of ramen noodle restaurants for the neighborhood near you. “i-Area” is a pre-GPS service – no GPS is necessary. Like so much about Japan’s mobile internet eco-system, i-Area has a non-obvious complex business model fine-tuned over 8 years now.

GPS came later – KDDI introduced the first GPS phone in December 2001 – a little more than seven years ago – and today about 1/2 of all mobile phones have GPS in Japan. Japan’s Government requires all cellphones to have GPS built in. Therefore, within a few years, as users replace their older phones, 100% of Japan’s cellphones will have GPS, giving a boost to the mobile LBS industry.

Interesting companies? An undisputed leader is Navitime – offering “total navigation” to about 2 million subscribers – almost 2% of the population of Japan. Many people in Japan, including the author of this newsletter, cannot live without total navigation….

Bombarding subscribers with mobile discount coupons by SMS for shops in the neighborhood is often mentioned in western blogs about mobile LBS. I have not yet received a single one during the last 8 years of mobile LBS in Japan – although these do exist if you want them.

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  • Hi Gerhard,

    My view is that Google Maps with their mobile Ads will be the major LBS application in the west (not Japan). Imagine, you are outside, search for a thai restaurant and simply type “thai rest” on the phone and it shows you a list of the nearest ones…. (with ratings etc.).

    Also, with their street view, compass functions and GPS enabled Android phone, you have a lot of integration options of the data in 3rd party apps.