The Curse of the Leapfrog

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Remember MiniDisc? The little square-shaped, muddy-sounding, smooth-playing media that made your standard Target-bought Discman feel as if you were walking around town with an ancient leaded-fueled turntable. The MiniDisc never caught on in the U.S., but the Japanese still won: Companies from that one island in the East controlled the entire portable market. If you wanted to see the edge of available technology in 2000, Biccamera in Shibuya was Consumer Mecca.

Then came the iPod. And within five years, “portable audio” became something that Japanese companies were really bad at.

But even after the iPod debacle, the Japanese and Koreans had one field in which they were absolute masters: the cell phone. Americans were literally forced by Sprint to use three-year old LG models. Guys in New Jersey pulled up friends’ numbers on tiny black-and-white screens while guys at the New Otani browsed a mini-version of the web in full color. Maybe the Motorola RAZR sold some phones in Japan, but c’mon: Media Skin, Marc Newson’s Talby? Compared to Japan, America looked like a third-world nation in terms of cell-phone standards.

Then came the iPhone.

Now you could argue that the full menagerie of Japanese phones still destroys the American selection or that Japanese phones can do neat things like receive broadcast television signals that the iPhone can’t. (Because I know you would never want to miss an episode of Waratte Ii Tomo.) Nevertheless, the iPhone — a single package — leapfrogs everything the Japanese market has to offer, especially considering the excellence of the user interface.

If we were smart, we would see this as the battle between multinational conglomerates instead of nations, but we won’t: The iPhone takes a serious bite out of the Japanese gross national cred on advanced cell phones. One product changed everything.

There is a recent Docomo commercial featuring hot actor Eita and some other guy showing off the latest and greatest function on a Docomo phone — get this, better yet, sit down — a motion-detecting boxing video game. Forget watching video libraries of films and TV shows on a wide screen, a WiFi-ready Internet device, and a revolutionary way to browse media archives, you can play a motion-detecting boxing game on a brand new Docomo phone if you set up your phone in a quiet room and punch near the screen. To be honest, that would have looked pretty cool if the other side of the world had not suddenly erupted with semi-religious technological progress.

(Wait, Marxy, are you considering the fact that Docomo has way more celebrity spokesmen than the iPhone? Fine, I admit it: Dentsu is way better at bringing together large teams of actors and actresses than the TBWA people.)

We can argue over small questions of functionality and design, but the Hype Machine in this Battle for Global Cool isn’t concerned with details. If someone asks, what’s the single coolest phone in the world today, would someone point to Japan or Korea? What would it take for Japanese phones to retake the title? Motion-detection curling?

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

27 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    You Ess Ay! You Ess Ay!

    C’mon, Marxy, you haven’t renounced your citizenship yet have you? The boys from Cupertino just scored one for the home team. Is it their fault the opposing team is in termial decline?

    (More seriously, Apple just turned the cell phone into a computer. Japan, for all its gizmo wizardry, sucks at computers. This could be trouble for the Insular Empire. Are there any great software houses in Japan apart from videogame makers?)

  2. marxy Says:

    “More seriously, Apple just turned the cell phone into a computer.”

    Turning anything from a gadget to a “computer” pretty much removes Japanese advantage.

  3. DB Says:

    I haven’t read if the iphone will have Ku-man, the delightful little bear that lives on my screen and sends me lots of emails asking me to buy him new things with my *actual* money – but if it does, then yeah I’m totally buying one.

  4. john Says:

    Japan still has much more advanced cellular infrastructure than North America, but we’re catching up. This allows wider access to the crazy features on the Japanese phones than the iPhone allows. Read most reviews of the iPhone and you’ll find that AT&Ts “slow” EDGE data network is much less desirable than other carriers’ HSPDA/UTMS/3G CDMA networks.

  5. Graham Says:

    John: Or AT&T’s own HSDPA/UMTS network, which would have made the iPhone near-perfect…

  6. sphinx Says:

    It would be worth mentioning the Blackberry as well, which while we haven’t seen it living in Japan, is apparently far better than almost any PDA/phone on the Japanese market.

  7. nate Says:

    yeah, america is not known so much for its innovation as its refinement of existing devices.

    has anyone noticed if the “S” on superman’s chest is backward?

  8. Aleksi Says:

    “But even after the iPod debacle, the Japanese and Koreans had one field in which they were absolute masters: the cell phone.”

    Oh come on, Marxy!

    Who is currently the world’s largest manufacturer of cell phones? With a market share over 35 percent? Nokia.

    And has Nokia anything to do with Japan or Korea? Nope :)

  9. marxy Says:

    Hey – who doesn’t love Finland!?

  10. Gen Says:

    “It would be worth mentioning the Blackberry as well”…

    No, the Blackberry is only relevant to people who’s first language is a Roman-based alphabet. The T-9 keypad is a much better interface for Japanese people writing emails in Japanese on their keitai.

    re: iPhone, I think it’s a toss up. Jobs & his team at One Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA, have revolutionized interfaces for mobile devices. Every single mobile phone manufacturer will be struggling to even come to par with the iPhone let alone pass it in the interface area.

    What the iPhone doesn’t have, and won’t have if it’s launched by Softbank in Japan, will be the Japan-specific chipsets to run OneSeg, Edy/Suica/Passmo, the GPS chips for real navigation, etc.

    Japan’s an outlier for mobile for many reasons (large enough internal market to support serious competition, effective government regulation which has kept Japan in the forefront of mobile, etc.) but it means that phones that work in Japan don’t work elsewhere and vice-versa. Note Nokia’s total failure in the Japan market (that and Vodafone too.)

    There are rumors that Apple is working to integrate double-byte languages for the iPhone to support non-Roman alphabets, but this product is clearly designed for people who are writing on a keyboard (not a phone pad.) Apple can deliver “predictive input” for English and French, but not for Chinese or Japanese or Arabic.

    I would like to see the iPhone in Japan, as I think it will affect the entire mobile industry, including Japan. I’m just not holding my breath.

  11. john Says:

    What would it take for Japanese phones to retake the title?

    In terms of “Cool”, I doubt we’ll see anything approaching the same functionality until Apple releases an unlocked version with 3G and better developer support.

    However, flooding the market with cheap and capable phones which provide great usability and basic functionality (calls, text/email) while being chicly designed could easily win over the people who can’t (or won’t) pay $600 to be mugged later on the subway.

    Is the value of Cool worth more than the value of marketshare? Does coolness lead to an increase in marketshare?

  12. Mulboyne Says:

    In the occasional conversations I’ve had with Japanese friends, they have often said “Why would I want a phone with my ipod?”. I’ve usually pointed out that people said the same about cameras and phones and most of this small sample have said “I don’t really use my keitai camera anymore anyway”.

    Gen knows much more about the trade-off between the device and the network but I was interested by the Steve Jobs interview where he emphasized that the ipod success was based on software not hardware and he believed the iphone would achieve the same impact. His main point being that Japanese companies don’t have good software. He didn’t mention marketing but that is a very significant factor too.

    It’s interesting; people don’t generally use their mobile phones like PCs in the west so the iphone promises greater convergence. If you are a Japanese keitai user, though, the current gap is not so large on two counts: you can do a lot of internet activities already on your phone and you may not use your home PC as much anyway so the conceptual gap the iphone fills is smaller.

    I’m not an early adopter by any means so I’m very unqualified to comment here. I am, though, interested in music sales so the iphone/ipod/itunes link poses a lot of questions. If software is going to be important for mobile phones then I tend to think it will be because it impacts the way people buy and listen to music.

    This week, Fopp, the leading independent music retailer in the UK closed it’s doors. Japan has seen a significant drop in CD sales but it hasn’t been critical so far compared with the West. Which is why HMV think they might get a good price by selling their Japan operations to Culture Convenience Store (Tsutaya) now. I wonder whether that company will still be selling CDs at Shibuya crossing five years from now. After all, Docomo owns 40% of Tower Records Japan and I’m sure they aren’t planning a big store expansion.

  13. Gen Says:

    “His [Steve Jobs’] main point being that Japanese companies don’t have good software.”

    This is absolutely why Apple stands head and shoulders above Sony today in consumer electronics.

    “If you are a Japanese keitai user, though, the current gap is not so large on two counts: you can do a lot of internet activities already on your phone and you may not use your home PC as much anyway so the conceptual gap the iphone fills is smaller.”

    This is also very salient and astute.

    Last I heard, AU has sold over 100 million Chaku-uta Full songs, which is less than Apple has via iTunes, but is certainly the most popular mobile music download service in the world.

    http://www.kddi.com/english/corporate/news_release/2007/0221/index.html

    That said, iTunes recently became the default music provider at Yahoo! Japan (replacing Sony’s Mora service), so if Apple is smart, they’ll use their new partnership with Softbank Mobile to push the iPhone into Japan via iPod/iTunes users. This will take time, however.

  14. marxy Says:

    Thanks for the more technical comments. I don’t mean to suggest that the iPhone is going to do huge business in Japan (or even in the U.S.!) but in terms of the Cool Hunting model of gizmo bragging rights, Japan has had another column pulled from under it.

    I’d write more, but I am so engrossed with watching a plethora of amazing Japanese TV morning shows on the tiny screen on my phone with terrible reception.

  15. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    So whats the word with iPhone and SoftBank… are they going to have it? Any confirmed rumors or just mainly speculation.
    I’m bout ready to replace my little portable TV, but iPhone in Japan won’t be anytime this year, right?

  16. FH Says:

    Even if the iPhone is more technologically advanced, America is far behind compared to Japan in how its mobile subscribers conceptualize and demand wireless data access. Most features on the iPhone promote functionality rather than lifestyle (with the exceptions of the existing iPod and the addition of YouTube accessibility).

    Compare this with Japan, which has at the very least a deeply rooted email messaging subculture (not to mention scanning QR codes to browse keitai-optimized sites, or to load addresses into GPS maps, or using RFID-keitais as a subway pass, and of course “sekigaisen”), and it’s clear that Americans have a lot to learn regarding how to use mobile devices. After all, plans in America are still sold based on the number of voice-minutes per month, with far inferior options for data/packet transfer than in Japan.

    As a piece of software-engineering, the iPhone certainly stands out above Japanese phones. But for all of the speculated advancements Apple has made, if Americans cannot integrate mobile devices into their lifestyle to an extent that exceeds that of Japanese, then I don’t see the iPhone being any more successful than Treo or Blackberry.

    Apple has demonstrated its power with the iPod, so the promise is there for the iPhone. But there is a long road ahead before anyone can claim superiority of technologies. We just have to hope (for those rooting for the home team) that there will be enough early adopters willing to foot the $2000 (phone + 2yr plan) commitment for the iPhone.

  17. David Says:

    Er… Really? I think that everyone knows about the iPhone now here in America; it would be so much more stylish to pull out a phone like the Media Skin or the Talby.

    “Turning anything from a gadget to a “computer” pretty much removes Japanese advantage.”

    Sony arguably turned the portable gaming system in to a computer with the PSP.

    “…phones that work in Japan don’t work elsewhere and vice-versa.”

    No. I had a dream the other night that I was in Japan but my crappy American phone still worked.

  18. M-Bone Says:

    The Sony Vs. Apple argument is silly. Nintendo has sold as many Game Boy Advance and DS systems since 2001 (when I-pod and GBA launched, and according to some stats and not others)as Apple has Ipods as well as god knows how many tens / hundreds of millions of games. Apple`s rep as a major consumer electronics power is based on one product. The next great thing will come along and Apple had better have a plan B.

    Good point made above – yes, the Iphone rules, however, what would $2000 (phone and contract) get you in terms of Japanese phones? A kickass phone, plan, and you would still have money left over for 5 Ipods or a laptop that fits in your pocket.

  19. Aceface Says:

    In a way Sony VS Apple can be a good match.
    600 bucks PLAYSTATION 3 VS 2K iPhone.
    Smart consumer would buy a Nokia and a Wii and leave the rest for your index funds.

  20. marxy Says:

    “Even if the iPhone is more technologically advanced, America is far behind compared to Japan in how its mobile subscribers conceptualize and demand wireless data access.”

    Yeah, we get all our information and service for free from the Internet instead of proprietary networks.

  21. marxy Says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/02/technology/02cellphone.html?pagewanted=1&ref=business

  22. Carl Says:

    “Sony arguably turned the portable gaming system in to a computer with the PSP.”

    No. If the PSP were a computer, you would use it for doing computer-like things, ie. browse the web and write emails. Does anyone seriously use the PSP’s web browser? The PSP is still centered on the same game disk paradigm as the Game Boy. It’s true that Sony tried to shift the PSP over into the mainstream by focusing on its capabilities as a media browser during its initial rollout period, but this is the root of the marketplace “failure” of the PSP compared to the DS: by attempting to add in computer-like media browser functionality, Sony dissuaded serious game development groups, then because there was little quality retail game software for the PSP, consumers decided to purchase the DS instead.

    The iPhone on the other hand is being sold completely on the strength of its user interface as a means of balancing web/email/media, with a phone thrown in for good measure. The iPhone is an iPod first, a mini-OS X internet device second, and a phone third.

    One of the most notable things about the iPod versus other media players, is that the competition usually have really, really crappy user interfaces, even after having had years to design a rip off of the iPod menu system. Current cellphones, US and Japanese also have terrible UIs. In many ways, phones are even worse than pre-iPod-era media players. So, if someone is going to beat the iPhone, either they’ll do it by arguing that UI doesn’t matter as much as cost (which Microsoft did with Windows in the 90) or they’ll find a way to beat Apple at the UI game. However, so far, I haven’t seen anyone else do a user interface in the same league as Apple…

  23. Miller P. Says:

    Since when do MDs sound “muddy”? I’ll take ATRAC over mp3 any day of the week.

    On the other hand, I’ll take iTunes over Sonicstage any day of the week. Sony really did blow it on the software end.

  24. Laotree Says:

    “Guys in New Jersey pulled up friends’ numbers on tiny black-and-white screens”
    Why you gotta talk trash about the fam, ese?
    “a motion-detecting boxing video game”
    Remember U-Force for NES? Me, I’m hoping for a Power Glove Keitai…

  25. marxy Says:

    Coming soon from Docomo. With even more celebrities.

  26. Laotree Says:

    Maybe they can bring lil’ Kevin Arnold in for that one.
    “US and Japanese (phones) also have terrible UIs.”
    That’s why I can’t use anything other than Docomo N-series (NEC) because it’s the only UI that I can seem to get my peanut-sized bronto brain around. Anyone feel that there current phone’s UI is well-designed and intuitive?

  27. Marcus Says:

    Apple is just one company. I mean, the iPod is really cool and all, but I don’t think that means the U.S. industry as such has leapfrogged the Japanese one. Surely, Apple leapfrogged the entire U.S. industry as well as Japan.