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Japan's number three mobile phone company, J-Phone, has claimed another 370,600 users for its 'picture phone' service in the last month, bringing the total up to just under 4 million, or a third of its total users. Rivals KDDI and DoCoMo are also offering high bandwidth, high ticket picture services, and the success of such systems in Japan offers western operators some entrancing clues as to how they can make money out of broadband services, and high-spec handsets.

Speaking to The Register at the recent GSM World Congress Sun representatives predicted a boom this year for Java handsets. All three of the major Japanese networks have deployed them successfully; they account for 25 per cent of DoCoMo's shipments, and J-Phone has shipped its 4 million phones with built-in camera since last July. Worldwide Sun expects Java handsets to top 100 million this year.

A return of the boom-days fuelled by picture phones, broadband and chargeable services however depends on the operators and whatever partners they sign actually having these services ready to roll. And while pictures play in Japan, how sure are we that the rest of the world will want to play? The mobile phone companies now wisely say that they've learned from texting, which took them by surprise, so they're not going to get caught out by the Next Big Thing. But is it pictures? Games? Soft porn?

Knowing you fluffed it once, and knowing there are several possible areas where the consumer's imagination may be set on fire, is not the same thing as being able to avoid fluffing it a second time.

The networks later this year will have large numbers of expensive phones which they'll want to get into the hands of consumers. If they've got great, compelling services to roll at the same time, then the phones may walk out of the doors. But otherwise, they'll find themselves spending heavily on subsidies and waiting for the service to take off, so that they can get their money back. It's a challenge, to say the least, because while Japan is frequently a phenomenon, it is not always a signpost. ®

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