First look: pushing Android phones to the limit

Last month, our look at the work Japanese company Eitarosoft is doing with Android made it pretty obvious a closer inspection was in order.

So, earlier last week we popped into the firm’s Tokyo office for a chat with founder and CEO Eitaro Nishijima and to take a look at what goes on in a modern software developer.

Eitarosoft made its name as a provider of rich, 3D games with a strong emphasis on its Java expertise. Aside from that, it also worked closely with Sun Microsystems to develop the 3D engine that powers Project Looking Glass, a notoriously popular (and geeky) cross-platform interface for desktops.

After that came a proof-of-concept demo of a handheld version of the same interface for mobile phones, which was a hit at the 2005 JavaOne conference, and a US patent application covering the same technology.

Mobile focus

Since 2006, the star in the company’s firmament has been a mobile SNS called Mobage-Town it created for web specialist DeNA, in which users get to interact, create profiles and play various simple games with each other.

Nothing special there, but take a look at the numbers – 10 million active users and upwards of 500 million page views per day. As the company’s Eri Tokita explained, “that’s more than Yahoo’s social networking sites combined,” and it tops plenty of the famous heavy hitters in the West.

However, the two-dimensional world of cartoon avatars and the like was only the beginning – the next stage involves lashings of AJAX and an online virtual world called Lamity.

Business first

For now, Lamity is a Java application that has to be downloaded to a handset before it can be used, but the just-announced 906i series of phones from NTT DoCoMo come with the app pre-installed after Eitarosoft concluded a deal with makers Sony, Sharp and NEC to load it up at the factory.

With Fujitsu set to jump onboard too in the near future, it’s clear that Lamity will bring its developer bundles of both kudos and cash – each handset maker pays a licence fee to use the software – but what’s the draw when cool stuff like Mobage-Town already has such a hold?

In an attempt to answer that, we took Lamity for a spin with the added frisson of doing so on a new closed-doors version running on the Open Handset Alliance’s Android OS.

Whereas Second Life will seize up a PC when it has to handle something under 100 users at once, Lamity has no problem at all getting to 400 simultaneous digital bods thanks to AJAX that shifts the processing load from the device to the game server.

Tokita explains: “The server does all the hard work and provides the final images to the user’s phone, which only has to read and display them, with nothing to calculate.”

Cash still king

In use, the virtual world is much like anything PC-based, but the emphasis on in-game marketing could be disconcerting for some. The Shibuya arena included a Sapporo building filled with beer-related promotions and campaign ‘staff’ to talk with.

We managed not to take them up on the offer of a free case of beer in return for a little personal data for marketing purposes (insidious, isn’t it?). Fortunately, there’s an age check built-in, although it’s not clear how effective this will be in practice.

Future plans include plenty of 3D games to put the avatars through – we got invited to a networked game of golf – and lots more online shops, where users can spend the Lamity virtual currency, City Coins.

Google glue too

After that, Eitarosoft plans to link up as many social sites as possible with Lamity using Google’s OpenSocial, so the implications for an immersive 3D mobile blanket over everything from MySpace to, possibly, Facebook are obvious. As CEO Nishijima pointed out, “Your phone’s always with you, after all.”

Lastly, whether deliberately or not, Tokita also let slip that showing Lamity at a Tokyo trade fair last week drew the attention of some seriously major-league players, including IBM.

As we already know, T-Mobile is going to be feeding the software to its customers on real Android phones later this year.

Will programs like this be the next big thing on your phone? Looks like you will be able to find out for yourself, soon.

J Mark Lytle was an International Editor for TechRadar, based out of Tokyo, who now works as a Script Editor, Consultant at NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Writer, multi-platform journalist, all-round editorial and PR consultant with many years' experience as a professional writer, their bylines include CNN, Snap Media and IDG.