Kisekae: The Dress-up Handset

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Today, the mobile phone is not just a device with functionality but is also a fashion accessory. We see many boys and girls who decorate their handsets with stickers, cover cases and beeds. Besides the device’s physical appearance, people also customize their wallpaper (main display on handset) with their favorite pictures. That same trend can be found in Japan, but in a more advanced stage: Japanese people once desired to personalize all interfaces in their handset, including SMS sending/receiving screens, outgoing/incoming call screens, menu interfaces and so forth. This desire gave birth to what is now called “Kisekae”.

1. What’s Kisekae?

Kisekae literally means “change what is being worn to something else” in Japanese (i.e. the Barbie doll is called “Kisekae” doll in Japan), though for our purposes the common software application term of “skin” may be appropriate, as in “change the skin (interface appearance) to another”. With the Kisekae tool provided by mobile operators, third parties can develop content for all handset interfaces with images and Flash Lite files and provide it as a package, and consumers can change all interfaces simply by installing it with a single click (NTT Docomo has a introduction to its Kisekae tool in English on its website).

2. Customizable Interfaces

The interfaces that are customizable with Kisekae content include:
•    the Menu Screen
•    the Main Display
•    the Screensaver
•    SMS Sending/Receiving screens
•    Phone Call screens
•    Signal and Battery Icons

3. Wide Variety of Content Available for Purchase/Free

A large number of third parties already provide hundreds of varieties of Kisekae content packages. Users mainly download the content from mobile operators’ content portal sites and/or third parties’ websites. Both buyable and free Kisekae content is available, and consumers primarily prefer content with the following themes:
•    Fictional/Comic characters
•    Animals
•    Brands
•    Celebrities
•    Athletes



4. Content Distribution As Branding Strategy

While the majority of Kisekae content providers aim at profiting by selling their content or making advertisement revenue, some companies distribute Kisekae content with a branding strategy in mind. Chanel for example distributes its Kisekae content at some stores in Tokyo. A consumer can install the content simply by connecting the handset to a machine for this purpose and letting it download. The majority of companies are like Shiseido however, a Japanese cosmetics company, who provide their Kisekae content online just as many other brands have marketed in the same manner to increase brand recoginition in their respective markets.

Kisekae Content by Chanel/ Photo by Sakuran

Kisekae Content by Chanel/ Photo by Sakuran

5. Market Facts

Almost all recent phones from the main operators (NTT Docomo, AU by KDDI and Softbank Mobile) have Kisekae enabled. Here are some market facts:
•    Kisekae content was first introduced on Sharp’s V501SH handset by Vodafone Japan (now Softbank Mobile) in 2005.
•    30% of male and 50% of female mobile users in Japan customize handset interfaces with the Kisekae content (MMD-Labo).
•    Market scale of Kisekae content jumped from 2.7 million in 2006 to 21 million dollars in 2007 (The study by Mobile Content Forum).
•    CA Mobile forecasts that the market size will reach 45 to 55 million dollars within 2008.

6. What’s Next in the Market?

There is no doubt that more and more users will enjoy Kisekae content as more varieties are added. What is frustrating developers is that as of today only one mobile operator, Docomo, allows third parties to develop Kisekae content; the other two major players (KDDI and Softbank) do not publicly provide any guidelines or tools for development. This hopefully will change soon, which will increase third parties’ participation in the development and therefore increase the penetration of Kisekae content usage in Japan.

7. Availability of Kisekae Content in The Rest of The World

It is currently impossible to use Kisekae content on the handsets available outside of Japan (wallpapers might be available on Flash Lite enabled phones outside of Japan though). However, the dramatic penetration increase of Kisekae content culture in Japan tells us that there’s strong potential in the mobile content customization and personalization market. I hope there will be a day when all phones are completely customizable in terms of both functionality and design.

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