IDG News Service - It's the kind of thing that in many countries might pass largely unnoticed, but Twitter's mobile Web site launch in Japan Thursday could end up being of vital importance to its success here.
More than two thirds of the 91 million people in Japan that access the Internet do so from cell phones -- 8 million of them exclusively from phones -- making mobile access an essential component for companies' success there.
The vast majority of mobile access in Japan is through WAP-like services such as NTT DoCoMo's I-mode, and Twitter's previous mobile site, a generic one for users worldwide, doesn't work well on some Japanese phones. So on Thursday, the company introduced a new site exclusively for Japan.
"I think the exciting things that you are going to see when everyone starts using it is that all the feature functionality that works on all the phones that everyone here in Japan has is totally accessible," said Kevin Thau, director of mobile business development at Twitter.
"Favoriting, at-replys, setting your preferences, on each and every one of the browsers on all the carriers is the goal."
The new service doesn't just bring greater compatibility to Japanese cell phones but at least one feature is being launched first in Japan: emoticons. The smiley faces and other icons have long been a popular inclusion in cell phone email clients here -- so much so that their absence in the iPhone generated complaints from users -- and they can now be used on Twitter through the new site.
"So I hope that everyone uses the new beta site and looks forward to things coming such as keitai (mobile) mail and many, many more new features from the Twitter service," he said.
But for many of the Twitterati in attendance at the launch party on Thursday night, the site's introduction means little. The networking and Web 2.0 crowd that has already embraced Twitter picked the iPhone as its tool of choice; easy access is already a few clicks of an application away.
The mobile site is about breaking beyond the early adopters and iPhone users into the much greater mobile-Internet using public.
Social networking is already big on cell phones -- 11 billion of the 15 billion monthly page views on leading social networking site Mixi come from cell phones -- so Twitter's job is less about persuading people to hop on their phones and more about attracting users to their site and gaining critical mass.
In a broader sense it's also a test bed for future mobile offerings in other countries.
"A very big focus for us is mobile, which is why Japan is very interesting to us," said Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter during a launch event in Tokyo on Thursday evening.
"Japan is obviously very advanced in mobile so it's a unique opportunity to see how the mobile users in Japan are using Twitter," he said. "And it's also a test for us for the Asian market because it's usually very hard to localize in Asian languages. It's harder than French, German, Italian or Spanish, which we are going to be doing in the coming months. It's largely experimental but it's also a lot of fun."
At least on Thursday night Twitter users seemed to be paying attention: Throughout the launch event, when news of the mobile site's launch was flowing onto Twitter from countless users in attendance, the site's famous fail whale was making its debut on cell phone screens. Access remained spotty all evening but appeared to stabilize by early this morning.
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