A week in tech

A round-up of all the latest tech news.

Japan

Hardware

- Sony Corp. aims to make picture quality the hallmark of its marketing efforts for flat-panel TVs by installing its proprietary Wega Engine circuitry in more than 90% of the flat TVs it sells globally in fiscal 2004, up from more than 50% in the current fiscal year. The Wega Engine, which digitizes analog video signals to remove extraneous noise for a clearer picture, has been used in Sony TVs since 2002. More than 90% of the LCD (liquid crystal display) and plasma TVs Sony sold in Japan in fiscal 2003 were equipped with the technology, but the ratio in North America was less than 50%, and in Europe it was zero.

- Combined capital investment in digital household appliances and other related products by 24 major manufacturers of electric equipment, semiconductors, chemicals and other products, is expected to top ¥1 trillion ($9.4 billion) for the first time to hit ¥1.2 trillion ($11.3 billion) in fiscal 2003, up 70% from a year ago. The robust capital spending on digital appliances is expected to continue into fiscal 2004, acting as an engine of Japanese economic recovery during the year. Combined capital spending by seven major Japanese chipmakers is likely to hit ¥583 billion ($5.5 billion) in fiscal 2003, up 69%.

Information Technology

- NEC Corp. plans to make a full-scale entry into the fast-growing smart tag market by building a comprehensive business centering on its new high-performance chip. NEC Electronics Inc. is in the final stages of development of the NetLabel chip, which will be larger than Hitachi Ltd.'s mu-chip but have eight times the data capacity at 1 kilobit. Coupled with data read-write ability, the chip will likely have a wide range of applications in tracking the distribution of food and goods and managing production at factories. The company hopes that group sales from its smart-tag-related business will reach ¥200 billion ($1.9 billion) by 2010.

Internet

- Japanese Internet bank eBank Corp. recorded its first monthly profit in December, a step forward for its plan to go public. The company booked a parent pretax profit of ¥19 million ($179,000) in December. But it remained in the red for the October-to-December quarter with a pretax loss of ¥519 million ($4.9 million). In December, eBank had expected a profit of between ¥10 million ($94,300) and ¥20 million ($188,700) for the last month of 2003. Given its accumulated losses, the bank is likely to remain in the red for the fiscal year through March 31, missing its original goal of booking a profit in its third business year.

Media, Entertainment and Gaming

- Nintendo Co. Ltd took the wraps off Nintendo DS, a portable video game system with two screens, one above the other. Nintendo had been expected by industry players to offer some sort of new handheld product this year to compete with Sony Corp.'s PSP, an advanced handheld gaming device set for launch by the end of the year. Sony already dominates the console games market with its PlayStation 2. The new Nintendo unit will feature two three-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, dual processors and up to one gigabit of semiconductor memory.

- Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. and Sky Perfect Communications Inc. plan to start offering a broadband television broadcasting service as early as this summer. The firms will establish a joint venture management company, but NTT's stake in the project is unlikely to exceed 3% because regulations prohibit the firm from owning more than that percentage of a broadcaster. The broadband TV service will be offered in areas where Nippon Telegraph & Telephone East Corp.'s and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone West Corp.'s fiber-optic or ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) services are available. Special receivers will be used to connect TV sets with the broadband networks. Trial services are scheduled to begin in February in Osaka and more than 100 programs, including animation and movies, are likely to be offered initially. In the future, all 300 or so channels transmitted by Sky Perfect's satellite TV service will also be available via NTT's broadband services.

Mobile / Wireless

- NTT DoCoMo Inc. is developing anti-virus software with Network Associates Inc. and intending to install it on handsets used for the firm's FOMA 3G service by the end of this year. In contrast to the newly revealed KDDI technology, the NTT DoCoMo system will require subscribers play an active role in ridding their phones of viruses.

- KDDI Corp. and content creator Edia Co. will start offering Jan. 29 a new mobile phone map search service that will recognize addresses spoken into a mobile phone. The user will connect to a service site and then be able to download map data on the address area. This service, which will be available to users of the KDDI au mobile phone Internet connection service, is based on a map search service offered by Edia. To this, voice input functions were added, drawing on voice recognition technology developed by KDDI Research and Development Laboratories Incorporated. The service will cost ¥210 ($2) a month.

- KDDI Corp. has developed basic technology to monitor and remove viruses that attack mobile phones and plans to offer an anti-virus service to users of its third-generation cellular phones starting in 2005. KDDI will install equipment on its phone network to detect viruses or unauthorized access. When the device discovers a virus, it will issue a warning to users and remove it. The company is considering providing the service for a fee to subscribers of its CDMA2000 3G mobile phone service.

Telecommunications

- NTT Communications Corp. and Plala Networks Inc. will start a service to allow subscribers to their respective Internet Protocol networks to talk with each other over IP phones. Subscribers will be charged ¥8 ($0.08) per three-minute talk through IP phone services. For the time being, NTT Communications and Plala Networks have decided to suspend direct connections of their IP phone networks but alternatively chose to lay ordinary phone circuits, run by regional phone operators NTT East Corp. and NTT West Corp., between their networks, an approach that requires converting voice data into analogue signals. The partnership plans to gradually increase the number of providers linked to their IP networks, particularly to include Fusion Communications Corp. by the end of March.

- Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. plans to develop a smart card that supports two international standards: FeliCa, developed by Sony Corp., and Type B, the standard used for Japan's national resident registry network, popularly known as Juki Net. NTT plans to begin developing the smart card this spring and have a practical version ready before the end of the year. The new smart card will incorporate a chip installed with programming that supports the protocols used by both FeliCa and Type B. The multifunctional smart card could be used for a variety of authentication and transaction purposes, including a wide range of commuter and government services and electronic money.

Korea

Hardware

- The combined annual sales of Korea's thin-film-transistor liquid-crystal display makers exceeded $10 billion for the first time in 2003. LG-Philips LCD reported US$5.1 billion last year in sales of TFT-LCD panels larger than 10 inches, while Samsung Electronics Co. ranked second globally with sales of US$4.9 billion. BOE Hydis Technology Co. recorded US$720 million in annual turnover. Altogether, the nation's three LCD-panel manufacturers put up $10.7 billion in annual sales, up 65 percent from $6 billion in 2002.

Information Technology

- Korea's Information and Communication Minister indicated it would stress creating new jobs in the information technology sector this year, while helping increase exports of mobile phones, memory chips and flat-panel displays. At a regular news conference, the Information Ministry will channel W47 billion ($39.7 million) into knowledge database projects that will create 2,000 jobs as a part of efforts to ease the job shortage for young adults. The government is currently grappling with a troubled job market and policymakers are placing hopes on the high-tech sector to help the economy stage a quicker recovery. The Information Ministry set the IT export volume target at $70 billion this year, up 22 percent from $57.3 billion in 2003.

Internet

- Pink Communication Co. launched an online matchmaking website. Matchmaking on the web is well established but what has sparked rumors around the Korean dot-com circle is that Pink Communications' founder gave up a much-coveted post at NHN Corp., a high-flying Internet portal operator, to enter this arena.

- Auction Co., Korea's largest online auctioneer, reported its fourth-quarter net profit rose 9.8 percent on the year to W4.9 billion ($4.1 million) on sales of W19.5 billion ($16.5 million), setting a positive note for the domestic online sector in the near term. Auction's sales were up 69 percent from the year-earlier period and up 25 percent from the third quarter. Its operating profit in the three months ended December reached W6.8 billion ($5.7 million), up 82 percent from a year earlier.

Mobile / Wireless

- KT Corp. announced an alliance with ReignCom Ltd., the world's largest MP3 player maker, to jointly develop a portable music player that allows users to download music files wirelessly. The wireless MP3 player will enable subscribers to KT's high-speed wireless Internet service Nespot to download music files when they are at "hotspots" near base stations. The alliance should help KT promote its wireless Internet service. KT so far has more than 12,000 hotspots nationwide and will add another 8,000 wireless-fidelity zones by the end of this year. The number of Nespot subscribers stood at 350,000 at the end of November.

Telecommunications

- KT Corp. is taking steps to find a new growth engine and stabilize its overall system in a bid to bolster its profitability as a global information technology frontrunner amid intensifying competition. KT's new focus on nurturing new business items comes at a time when the fixed-line and broadband telecommunications markets are beset by harsh price competition and tepid growth. KT is keen on develop new business items, particularly targeting convergence technologies. Increasingly, voice and data are bundled together to form a new line of services, while the boundary between fixed-line and mobile technologies is being blurred. Integration, though fraught with regulatory problems, is forcing telecom services to merge with broadcasting.

China

Semiconductors

- The mainland's biggest chipmaker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), has secured $285 million in bank loans in its second financing exercise in four months. This has boosted its war chest to $915 million ahead of an initial public offering in April. The firm had secured a five-year loan with four banks - Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Bank of Communications and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank - to expand its eight-inch fabrication plant. The four lenders also provided a loan of $480 million to SMIC in December 2001.

Taiwan

Hardware

- A shortage of liquid crystal display (LCD) panels from Taiwanese suppliers is keeping pressure on mainland manufacturers of computer monitors, which are unable to fulfill orders. The shortage is also putting pressure on margins. According to Shenzhen Irico-Royal Information Electronics, a Taiwan-invested manufacturer of monitors, prices for 15-inch panels would not fall below $200 this year from $250 at present. The shortfall has existed since March last year. Shenzhen Irico-Royal estimates have the global shortage of LCD panels at about 18 percent this year but indicated that it gap may decease in the second half.

Singapore / Malaysia / Philippines / Indonesia

Mobile / Wireless

- MobileOne Ltd., a Singapore mobile-phone company, posted a 10% jump in net profit for 2003 as cost-cutting measures helped improve its bottom line amid a saturated market. MobileOne earned S$141.6 million ($82.9 million) last year, compared with S$128.4 million ($75.1 million) a year earlier. Revenue for the year rose 1.6% to S$717.3 million ($419.5 million) from S$706 million ($584.8 million), partly because of the company's move to rein in costs. Operating expenses were S$525.1 million ($307.1 million), down 1.7% from S$534.1 million ($312.3 million) a year earlier. For the quarter ended Dec. 31, MobileOne's net income rose 1.4% to S$36.9 million ($21.6 million) from S$36.4 million ($21.3 million) a year earlier, as revenue fell to S$178.9 million ($104.6 million) from S$184.3 million ($107.8 million).

Hong Kong

Mobile / Wireless

- Hong Kong was given its first glimpses of the 3G phone technology, which proponents say will revolutionize mobile entertainment and communication. Marketers from Hutchison began visiting potential corporate subscribers to their "3" service, offering demonstrations of how a range of services, from breaking news to adult entertainment, can be delivered as moving pictures to mobile phones. However, the breaking news, from broadcasters including TVB and CNN, comes with a delay of 30 minutes to an hour.

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