2008: iPhone and Its Copycats

iPhone

American tech company Texas Instruments produced one of the first working prototypes of a transistor radio, but it was Japanese company Sony that turned the concept into a marketable product and spread it across the world. Similarly, Japanese scientists did not discover the semiconductor, but Japanese companies dominated the market in the 1980s, until the reemergence of Intel. For most of the 20th century, the stereotype was “the West invents, Japan perfects.” With TVs and cars, this adage still holds true today: Japan owns the high-end television market, and Toyota is looking like it will easily outlive General Motors.

NTT was the first company in the world to market a mobile phone, so maybe the previously-explained industrial dynamic is not relevant to the world of keitai denwa. Almost a full year after it’s initial release, the American iPhone finally made its well-publicized Japanese debut in mid-2008 — to a relatively tepid response. A lot of techy customers lined up in front of Softbank stores to buy the gadget, but I would not say that the iPhone has made much of a dent in the broader mobile phone “culture.” There were some complaints that the iPhone ignored Japanese users’ favorite features, but now that the software added “emoji” characters and the ability to attach a 1seg TV tuner, perhaps the phone can entice more mainstream users. I do not believe that the normal mobile phone customer — read: the normal Japanese person — necessarily will ever jump on the iPhone train. I suspect, however, that enough mobile users have seen or played with a real-life iPhone to know that this is the most fancy, luxury offering in the market. Certainly, Softbank and Apple want you to believe that.

Take this in for a second: the idea that a non-Japanese phone would be the most impressive model in the Japanese market is pretty staggering. Until the iPhone’s debut, Japan and Korea produced the most highly-advanced and elegant phones on the planet, hands-down. Sure, Japan lost its total domination of video game systems and portable music devices in recent years, but they still had a two-year advantage on phone functionality. The iPhone leap-frogged out of Cupertino and ruined the whole game. 1seg is the last weapon in the Japanese arsenal, and you have to love watching daytime “wide-shows” to care about that.

Now if the old “copy-cat” narrative of Japan held, we would probably see Japanese companies all clamoring to put out their own iPhone clone. So far we see very little movement in this direction — especially compared to Korean phone makers LG and Samsung, who are clearly biting a few nice features from Apple. Softbank’s Touch Diamond X04HT steals a bit of the touch screen magic, and Docomo has its PRO series HT-02A that even features iPhone-esque little icons at the bottom of the screen. But these phones do not perfect the iPhone idea: they just tack the most obvious features onto the old paradigm. And this is after a full year of being able to reverse engineer the sucker and develop a copy. So are Japanese companies incapable of making a phone with both elegant industrial design and user interface? Isn’t this the country of “timeless craftsmanship” and Zen and beautiful gardens, and therefore, world-class engineering prowess?

I am sure there are more intelligent opinions on this topic, but my gut feeling is that there are two reasons for a lack of iPhone one-ups. First, there seems to be a prideful refusal to admit that the iPhone is such a big leap ahead. Sony refused to make an iPod-like device for several years, and even now, they are not really putting their heart into making a rival product. Japanese companies may have fallen under the weight of their own success: for the last twenty years, they have been the premier electronics giants — with no one to copy but themselves. Going back to the scrappy underdog “copying” of the 1950s feels a little… post-war.

Hubris, however, is more of a subjective judgment than a primary motivator. The main reason probably has more to do with the Japanese phone industry having a lot of entrenched interests in the current system. Let’s face it: a nation of iPhones would be a financial disaster to the monopoly powers. All that money poured into i-mode would just be wasted. Imagine if users could browse the normal web and not some proprietary network. Oh, the humanity! Instead of being charged ¥10 every time you look up some crappy text-only page on a tiny screen, you could borrow someone’s WiFi and look up things on real-deal Google — for free. And God, imagine the moral horror of downloading applications from a free market of independent developers.

Okay, okay, I am a sarcastic partisan, but I, like many, miss the days of being blown away by the Japanese tech lead. Going to Yodobashi Camera now is still visiting a alternate future, but not necessarily a brighter one.

Japanese companies had a good run as skilled copycats. They also had a good run as the global tech leaders. This current stage of making second-rate laggard products at high prices does not seem like a good long-term position. Sony is “entertaining the future,” but maybe they should start entertaining the present. I don’t really need a mp3 player that randomly rolls around on the ground, but I find my iPod Touch useful.

W. David MARX
December 9, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

50 Responses

  1. ale/pepino Says:

    Yeah, they can’t apologize and say they’ve been stalling and lying to themselves “people don’t want new stuff” and “people want just more of the same”.

    My feeling about this is, if somebody in Japan is meant to think about really new and brilliant stuff these years, it won’t be the traditional huge companies. At least not in their respective terrain.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    I forgot to mention this in the piece, but the other “classic Japanese stereotype” is that consumers run out and buy whatever is the latest and greatest object. But I would say that no longer happens — especially if the gadget does not conceptually fit with the Japanese technological paradigm.

  3. DB Says:

    You mention Yodobashi and wifi and one thing that drives me crazy is the fact that the Kichijoji one doesn’t even have a signal. Like they don’t even bother to just plug in one of the many routers they sell. In fact, the only place in all of Kichijoji I know for a fact has public wifi is the Starbucks sort of across the street from there.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Why would someone give WiFi away for free when someone could make money from it? Are you a socialist or something???

  5. DB Says:

    And also you left out Kuman dude, no Kuman on the iPhone.

  6. Gen Kanai Says:

    As all of the Japanese consumer computer hardware manufacturers know, selling a “Japanese” computer with a CPU from Intel, a graphics chip from NVIDIA, and an operating system from Microsoft leaves little value-add for the Japanese manufacturer (most are made in Taiwan, anyway.) Apple has taken market-share and mind-share from Microsoft because of their software (and to a lesser degree their hardware).

    The same is true in mobile. There is no evidence that Japanese mobile phone manufacturers, (Sharp, Panasonic, NEC, Mitsubishi, etc.) can suddenly come out of nowhere with mobile phone _software_ that will equal or top the iPhone’s operating system.

    If you look at the next-generation mobile phone platforms, Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android, the LiMo platform, none of those are Japanese efforts. Softbank has joined LiMo. NTT is on board with Android (with help from Korea’s KTF), and who know what KDDI will do once their current BREW-based platform runs it’s course.

  7. Gen Kanai Says:

    That said, photographer Philip Greenspun is quite enamored of his new Canon DSLR.

    http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/2008/12/06/new-canon-5d-and-1980s-japanophobia/

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Add cameras to the “safe” industry list.

    You make an excellent point about software, something that the Japanese have never been quite good at.

    The question is, however, is the 21st century a software century rather than a hardware century? If so, that’s not a good harbinger for Japan.

  9. DB Says:

    Well for sure it is a internet century and the ‘Pan is way behind in so many ways there.

  10. Gen Kanai Says:

    “is the 21st century a software century rather than a hardware century?”

    Absolutely it is.

    Japan’s only claim to global software prowess are: the TRON project and Matz’s Ruby.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRON_Project

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_%28programming_language%29

  11. Gen Kanai Says:

    Japan’s been very good at embedded software (like TRON) that has run all of the Japanese consumer electronics devices. Back in the 70’s and 80’s when software was much more basic, hardware was the competitive factor. Today, as hardware is now driven by design and is fabricated in Taiwan (for the higher-end) and China (for the lower-end) the differentiation is with the software. All of the fancy things we love about the iPhone are software. The hardware is well-done, but is clearly secondary to the software.

    The iPhone, for all it’s faults, especially for double-byte languages, is a bona-fide hit product and has changed the mobile marketplace significantly. Apple benefits from designing _both_ the hardware _and_ the software of the iPhone, something that Microsoft, nor Google, nor the LiMo Foundation can do with Windows Mobile, Google Android, nor LiMo. Whether Japanese consumers will be interested in phones that were not designed explicitly for them? Vodafone Jaapn learned that expensive lesson only a few years ago.

  12. Bobbin Says:

    Arguably, the 20th century was already the software century, for remember that while the Japanese managed to become dominant in the market for semiconductors during the 1970s and 1980s, they never were able to even be competitive with the American manufacturers of microprocessors, Intel and Motorola, even with closer ties between government and industry.

    Why? Because to build and sell microprocessors means designing not only a machine architecture but the language that runs on it, and that’s where the Japanese could not (and still can’t) compete.

  13. M-Bone Says:

    On the software front –

    Japan still does well with video games. Maybe not sexy, but Japanse handheld videogame systems are the only ones out there and they rule – the Nintendo DS has shipped (I’ve seen different numbers) 85,000,000 units worldwide. There are nearly 25,000,000 sold for Japan. That is about one for every 5 Japanese. In addition, the Sony PSP has sold 45,000,000 units worldwide (about 15,000,000 in Japan). Those are mega numbers and they are mainly due to the software that the systems run. They are also totally uncontested by any non-Japanese company.

    Now 150,000,000 Ipods have been sold worldwide but I’ll wager that the game systems see people spend more money on software, etc. after the original purchase. 150 mil is also not that much more than the Japanese handheld game systems – surprising given the Ipod’s global cultural cred. If the Ipod numbers also count that little one with no screen, it is even more surprising.

    The Nintendo Wii has also been embraced as majorly innovative everywhere and has overtaken the Microsoft entry despite a much later release. I’m not sure if this is still true after all of the recent stock havok, but Nintendo became Japan’s biggest company for a reason.

    Should also keep in mind that a potential explanation for the low Iphone sales in Japan (comparatively) is the high penetration of the game handhelds that do many of the same things that the Iphone does (although you can’t chat on one). I’ve had a number of people tell me that they will take a PSP and a regular Keitai over an Iphone. Judging from my observations on trains, Japanese are not afraid to use the games in public.

    So while Japanese companies have totally screwed the pooch on handheld music, the PS3, and taking the next leap with Keitai, it ain’t all bleak. And innovation CAN come out of the current system. Will it continue to, is the question….

  14. nate Says:

    Got one.
    The word-of-mouth on iPhones can’t be good. It is, by a wide margin, the worst phone I’ve used for both mail and phone since I came to Japan. The price is pretty offensive too.

  15. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Just to play Devil’s Advocate here, is the iPhone really that great from the average-Japanese-consumer perspective? In particular, if you don’t care about the web because you do all your fun-having online via mobile interfaces (as many, many people do), so your phone is basically a device for one-handed one-thumbed rapid-fire textual communication, what does the iPhone offer you? I’m trying to imagine schoolgirls and salarymen changing their one-hand-on-the-overhead-strap, one-hand-on-the-keitai ways, and failing.

    (How is the iPhone’s Japanese text input?)

  16. Daniel Says:

    I watched a guy on the Yokosuka Line post on someone’s mixi diary (“どこのとんかつ屋?”), and it didn’t look too pleasant. I hadn’t thought about how important one-handed input is here.

    And it’s not just daytime shows – being able to record 爆笑 Red Carpet to a 2 gig micro-SD card (that cost me 900 yen) was a big bonus when I was upgrading phones. That said, I’m not a fan of the user interface on my phone.

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    I think Japan is still good at making gadgets that are essentially toys. The DS is great, and people like the PSP. Nintendo is brilliant for moving away from an exclusively child audience while still working within their core competencies.

    I am not sure the iPhone is great for all Japanese consumers. It is absolutely a product for computer users. Without a laptop to hook up to daily and access to bit torrent, my iPod Touch would be kind of worthless. The question remains, is the distance from the computer internet going to keep stifling Japanese tech companies who do not understand the needs of the world’s computer-based net users?

    I don’t mean to say that the iPhone is the best model for Japanese needs, but I do think it has the “halo” of being a superior product — even to those who can’t necessarily use it properly and fully.

  18. Alex Says:

    Im sorry to say but, I think the iPhone is pretty over-rated.

    I feel that the target the iPhone aims for are teenagers and early adults (up to early 30’s). Granted, you can argue that that age group is a significant target, but if you look at it the big picture, I really dont see older Japanese adults (people in their 40s and 50s) going crazy over the iPhone.

    Japan has been one of the major players in the cell phone industry for a while now. The biggest reason is the functionality of their phones. Who needs an iPhone, when a japanese made cell phone can be used as a train ticket, and within the train station can be used as a debit card, as well as the fact that some of the japanese phones are capable of being used as a video phone, where you can talk to another person and see them at the same time!

    Again, maybe once the iPhone actually addresses these issues, they can have a greater success in the Japanese market. Until then, I stick with my argument that iPhones ARE generally speaking, over-rated.

  19. Connor Says:

    Gen,

    I completely agree that the real differentiating factor with the iPhone is the software, but to my mind it goes a bit further than the actual routines that run the thing. As I see it, the real game-changer there in my mind is Apple’s commitment to both fostering outside software development and also doing what they can to curate (not police) that development, with the approval process and centrality of the app store at least creating some functional layer of mediation/regulation/enforcement of the phone’s software space. As much as I like the Android model of “fuck it anybody gets to develop whatever they want,” I think there’s a lot to be said for Apple’s model of extremely loose vetting of that which an open and active dev community can put together.

    As Marxy has mentioned, there’s a million structural reasons why that one big iPhone value-add would be tough to directly import to Japan- much smaller dev community, prevalence of kickbacks, reluctance to decrease profit margins, general antipathy towards letting people mess with your products.

    However, maybe it isn’t the (admittedly totally sinister and collusive and terrible) carrier-manufacturer axis that’s keeping Japanese consumers from functional internet phones/mobile-PC culture; maybe they really just don’t WANT it. Which, as has been said many times, would bode extremely poorly for the future of software development in Japan, which in turn would bode extremely poorly for Japan’s future as an electronics manufacturer. But in that case, the underlying reasons don’t have to do with Japanese firms’ collective failure to gauge/respond to market needs, but rather that they were in fact rationally responding to needs which are not in fundamental alignment with the industry’s long-term best interests.

    Which raises two questions:
    Is this, in fact, the lesson of iPhone?
    If so, when the first Japanese analysts start to figure it out, what the hell are their managers going to do about it?

  20. DB Says:

    Semi appropriate morning news?

    http://www.247wallst.com/2008/12/sonys-sne-reviv.html

  21. M-Bone Says:

    “I think Japan is still good at making gadgets that are essentially toys.”

    You are right about that. But I think that the PSP, especially, moves out of the toy dimension – you can rip a DVD onto a Sony Memory Stick (TM) and watch it on the thing, surf the web, use chat software, watch TV, store and play all of your music on, photos, etc. If I had one, I’d probably be reading PDF books on it too. I can’t help but think that this took a bit of a bite out of the Iphone. The PSP firmware is, in my understanding, good enough to give us reason to think that there is a future in Japanese electronics on the software as well as the hardware side.

    I also reconsidered what I said about sales – the Ipod was released 2-3 years before the PSP and DS and since there are new versions of both of those out for the holiday season, you could make the argument that for the 2004-early 2009 period, that the Japanese handheld games have significantly outsold the Ipod.

    What Matt said pretty much describes my reason for not getting an Iphone. It would be fine for net on the go, but I spend too much time online already….

    Marxy is right about the “halo”, in my opinion, however. Its just a “halo” that I can’t bring myself to care much about. I’d love a laptop with a 1.5 TB hard drive – but do I need one?

    In any case, as Marxy nodded to, I think that recognizing Nintendo’s mad innovation over the past 4-5 years is important when considering the future of Japanese “creativity”.

    Nintendo was in the toilet after the N64 and Gamecube (although still strong in handhelds) – running a distant second or third in an industry that they basically built. This “fall” was more of a “shock”, however, and like Apple, they made like a phoenix, raging back with revolutionary ideas. Let’s hope that in 15 years, we’re talking about them as allegorical for Japanese consumer / popular culture (although I don’t think that it is quite that bad yet). It can be done. Some might say “even in Japan”, but it could be “especially in Japan”.

  22. Adamu Says:

    Positioning the iPhone as the iPod of the phone world seems pretty myopic. The iPod’s impact on the mp3 industry was just huge, to the point where iPod has become synonymous with mp3 player (and I would suspect that the word iPod has become the household name for all mp3 players in some languages). Has the iPhone had that effect on people in the US or anywhere else? No way. The iPhone is innovative sure, but it wasn’t “outside software development” that made the ipod so revolutionary, it was making an mp3 player that non-geeks could actually use. iPhone isn’t even the top smartphone, it’s Nokia.

    Looking ONLY at the i-phone misses the larger story of smartphones as the default cutting-edge technology of this year, of which the iPhone was merely a part. Its features were relatively well-done, but it wasn’t perfect and was certainly no revolution.

    And anyway, aren’t these super feature-rich phones kind of high-end? In Japan, rule changes have effectively ended the practice of giving out free top-of-the-line phones to new subscribers (in exchange for higher monthly rates). Now users have to pay for their features, and this will necessarily create a two-tiered market that’s more similar to the US — most people will keep their old phones while others will seek high-end stuff like the iphone.

    This change, years in the making, will probably end the “Galapagos effect” of creating very uniquely designed but less than user friendly phones but it will also create some competition among phone makers to meet real consumer demand.

    I think it’s a little too early to try and confirm or rewrite the long-held stereotypes — let’s see what actually happens first.

  23. Matt Says:

    The PSP is definitely a sexy piece of consumer hardware but I don’t think you can seriously argue it’s “taking a bite” out of iPhone sales. It’s designed primarily as a gaming device, with added Internet functionality. The iPhone is, of course, designed primarily as a communications device. I don’t think anyone in the market for a new phone has ever passed over the iPhone (or any keitai) in favor of a PSP.

    On another note, while I agree that the iPod really trumps anything on the Japanese (or American) marketplace, dissing Sony’s “Rolly” MP3 player misses the point: whimsical devices like this are exactly the sort of thing that differentiates the Japanese marketplace from more pragmatic offerings abroad. I can’t really ever see buying one, but it does make me happy to see stuff like that for sale here.

  24. W. David MARX Says:

    Rolly would be a hilarious lark if it wasn’t Sony’s only idea on how to combat the iPod. How about… making a better iPod?

    I would also note that the proliferation of illegal media content in the West makes young people very happy to have an iPhone/iPod touch. It’s an amazing media player. In Japan, there’s not even that much legal content to download and bit torrent trading is nowhere as rampant. And needless to say, Japanese TV shows aren’t good enough to make you have a backlog of “must-see series” to keep viewing. I have so much media on my iPod just from iTunes, iTunes U., and free PBS series. I have been watching this 4 hour documentary on FDR that was totally free. There is just nothing like that available in Japan, and without it, the iPhone feels a lot less useful.

  25. nate Says:

    two things: the Japanese text entry is awful. It can take multiple seconds just to register the button presses, and it forgets how to write my girlfriend’s name about once a month.
    The price: I pay a fair bit each month, and needed to commit to a two year contract, but the actual price of the unit isn’t bad. The net-tsukaihodai costs three times what I pay for the phone itself each month. Me being the user I am, that feels fair. My monthly billing statements show me having racked up 13man worth of net use before the tsukaihodai discount (almost no youtube).

  26. W. David MARX Says:

    I pay about 3000 a month for my old-school AU phone that I only use when I have to. I have an iPod Touch. There are about 2 hours max everyday when I don’t have access to the internet and I live with it.

  27. DB Says:

    Maybe others don’t care, but can you download torrents directly to your ‘touch?

  28. W. David MARX Says:

    Not that I know of, but I don’t really need to. Visualhub converts 1 hours in about 6 mins.

  29. M-Bone Says:

    “I don’t think anyone in the market for a new phone has ever passed over the iPhone (or any keitai) in favor of a PSP.”

    Not in favor of a PSP, but perhaps because they already have a PSP?

    iPhone Vs. iPod – Yes, the iPod is by far the more successful and important gadget – which makes it even more surprising that the much less talked about Japanese gaming devices crept up on it in terms of sales globally. There is no contest between the sales of the game machines and the iPhone.

    “How about… making a better iPod?”

    This is a good point – it is not like it is so far advanced that nobody can even dream about something better. Somebody should really take a good crack at it.

  30. M-Bone Says:

    Marxy, is it worth going with a touch over a classic?

  31. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Yes, and you can buy my used one.
    Marxy can broker the deal for a 5% fee.

  32. M-Bone Says:

    Sorry man, I’m broke at the moment.

    Also, didn’t they only come out a few months ago? Selling already?

  33. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    I have an iPhone and don’t need my touchey anymore. Waited a bit too long to very passively attempt to sell it though, I guess.

  34. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    “Making a better iPod” is precisely the wrong idea, at least as long as designers and engineers inevitably interpret “better” to mean “like an iPod, but with…” This kind of thinking gives you the Zune. And no-one wants a Zune. The iPod is perfectly adapted to the niche of being the easy-to-use mass-market Mp3 player because it has shaped that niche to fit itself snugly. Every other interface and device inevitably suffers by comparison.

    (Yeah, yeah, unless you’re a nerd who values Ogg compatibility etc. That’s a valid market, but it’s not the mass market.)

    Mark my words: if the iPod is eventually unseated by another device (rather than by advancing cellphone functionality), it will be by something that comes out of left field and is initially scoffed at by early adopters (“Less space than a nomad. Lame”). I don’t think the Rolly is it, but I do think that that kind of whimsical thinking is the right track.

    I also think that given the success of the DS and the Wii, Nintendo would have a much better chance than any of the Japanese phone companies, or their suppliers, of coming up with an iPhone-style superphone that the Japanese market would embrace. But that would require that Nintendo take time out from their grueling regime of lighting cigars with 10,000-yen bills and diving into vats full of gold coins, of course.

  35. Satoshi Kawase Says:

    As a former engineer and product manager in Panasonic’s mobile phone division I can write with degree of certainty why Japan has not produced an iPhone yet:

    1. It takes more than “a year of reverse-engineering” and pixie dust to create an iPhone. The iPhone is a marriage of software, industrial, and electronic design. In other words – a very tiny computer. Apple has been building those for years whereas Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp have been making phones. They could pull resources from their respective laptop divisions but again – the OS is outsourced to Micrsoft.

    2. The iPhone is a quantum leap in usability, not features. Kids don’t pick up a pack of cigarrets and start puffing away. They need to learn and get used to them. In terms of phone features the Japanese have been smoking 3 packs a day for the last decade. Americans are excited just to be lighting up their first menthol.

    The more interesting question really is:

    Will Japan’s mobile data usage be surpassed by the ROW?

    Mobile data in Japan is comparitively more expensive and slower than a lot of European countries. America will start passing it by as well. I too was expecting more “Iphone” magic to hit Japan, but more and more I’m convinced that mobile websites/applications that demand more screen real estate and bandwidth will drive innovation in the handsets.

    -Toshi

  36. Matt Says:

    “Nintendo would have a much better chance… of coming up with an iPhone-style superphone that the Japanese market would embrace. ”

    My kingdom for Skype on the DS. (I mean a legit release, not something that requires hacking.)

  37. M-Bone Says:

    “diving into vats full of gold coins”

    They hide the gold coins in bricks for some reason.

    I agree with Matt on the “next iPod”, actually, it can’t just be a better MP3 player. I’m pretty excited to see what companies are going to start doing with this paper-thin LCD that has been developed.

  38. W. David MARX Says:

    The Walkman, iPod, and iPhone have all succeeded because they catered to a latent consumer need. In the case of the iPod, American college students had amassed thousands of MP3s and had no easy way to take them on the road. The early adopters did not just rip all their CDs — they just transferred their music collection from their hard drives. There was no latent need for iPods in Japan because you did not have individuals amassing huge archives of music on their computers.

    The iPhone then makes sense for people who want to combine a phone with their digital media players. In Japan, there is not the latent need for this.

    So the “next iPod” should not come out of left-field: it will reflect customers’s latent needs. This is the difference between Sony’s “selling what you make” and Apple’s “selling what will sell.” Sony makes goofy things that no one necessarily is demanding. Apple is always offering you a more elegant solution to a media-overflow conundrum.

  39. Mulboyne Says:

    Newly available for Christmas

    http://www.sankei.co.jp/iphone/

  40. Jacob Says:

    Apart from what a year ago was revolutionary hardware (fast becoming a commodity) the iPhone offers a superior through a thoroughly integrated experience. Apple’s way of being is to design hardware and software that fit tightly together, and that makes for a better user experience. If anything, Japanese electronics firms have a history of excelling at the same, in a way that most mobile manufacturers never have. While perhaps most existing handset producers in Japan have fallen down a bit, this is exactly the sort of single appliance model of electronics that Japan has long done.

    But Japan, more than most countries, tightly ties its mobile services to its operators. This is very true in America and Europe, but not nearly to the same degree. When services requirements are hanging over your design, it is very difficult to do anything new, and bucking the trend means recreating end customer’s expectations. There’s a lot of inertia in Japan over putting services on the network, partially because the operators want to mantain their business models (ie. don’t want to become commodity bit movers) and partially because it means moving customers to less established services.

    Here in the States, its easier to point at internet-style services and say “hey, wouldn’t this be nice on mobile”. Perhaps without the same relative popularity of the desktop internet, that is a lot harder for Japanese consumers.

  41. Jacob Says:

    Also David, I’ve never seen numbers on it, but I’m not convinced that iPhones are actually being used as iPod+mobile devices. While the iPod functionality certainly grabbed a good interest from existing iPod users, I think its really the improved usability of the phone experience, and the novelty of useful mobile internet services that have really driven iPhone sales. My kingdom for a spreadsheet showing how many songs actually go on the average iPhone…

  42. Jacob Says:

    Oh, one last thought… I don’t think that Apple is really all that interested in the Japanese phone market, apart from having this iPhone thing that can be pretty trivially localized and sold. The iPhone is a US-centric phone that happens to be sold worldwide…and so having less impressive sales in Greater Not North America should not be surprising.

    If that’s true, the question of why Japanese companies aren’t creating iPhone-like phones is really the question of why nobody else besides Apple is doing so. And that is probably best answered as, 1. it takes a while and nobody was doing this a year ago and 2. its really not very profitable compared to selling lots and lots of less designed handsets

  43. Sho Says:

    Interesting discussion. Let me add a couple of points:

    – firstly, the iPhone is not a flip phone. That might not seem such a big deal to whiteys but every japanese person I’ve ever met has displayed a strong preference for the flip phone form factor – they are almost synonymous with “mobile phone” in the cultural psyche. Thus, the iPhone does not “feel right” – it might be a neat mini-tablet computer, but they want a phone!

    – next, the iPhone, as already mentioned, requires tethering to a desktop. Many, many japanese do not even own a desktop PC, and even if they do they display a far lower general competence/acceptance at their use, especially as a “digital hub” for music, etc. I would wager this comes across as an undesirable overhead in “messing around” when they just want a phone that plugs in and works by itself, just like normal phones.

    – As has been mentioned, there is a strong existing ecosystem for mobile content. While the iPhone can access existing web sites, which of those websites truly cater to people “on the go”? Note the US advertising for the iPhone – it tends to show the NYT and Google Maps, from what I remember. This is not very compelling even to me. And let’s not forget that Google Maps might seem a lifesaver to an American in a car looking for a restaurant which needs a booking, but a student in Takadanobaba has very little need for such a thing. Japanese “places of interest”, as I’m sure all here would agree, tend to be very much closer together and accessed/remembered at a neighbourhood scale. GPS is for cars.

    etc.

    And to add my personal feelings for the iPhone: it’s a fantastic technological accomplishment, to be sure, but I don’t have one – it just doesn’t fit with my needs. It:

    – is an ungainly, oversized phone which requires two hands to use and I have to stop walking to do anything with it
    – is a bad iPod with low capacity and that lacks the proper interface so I have to take it out of my pocket and stare at it and use both my hands to do anything
    – is an underpowered computer with a tiny screen and no keyboard

    Again, most of this is about the form factor. Especially the iPod part. The iPod is, IMO, basically perfect, it’s the most usable and well-designed device I can think of, and I always carry mine. The iPhone is great, but a multi-purpose touch-screen slab (with a tenth of the capacity) is not going to take my iPod’s place anytime soon.

    Some might feel that these devices, while not that great by themselves, are more than the sum of their parts and that the all-in-one nature and the portability makes it useful anyway. Well, possibly, but it’s not good enough to replace the others, not yet anyway. The convergence device is just not there yet, for me anyway.

    The number of situations I’ve been in where I thought “gee, an iPhone would be real useful right now” is not zero, but it’s not very high, and nowhere near high enough to abandon what I currently consider to be a superior solution with various discrete devices. Gee-whiz factor aside, I think a lot of people are in the same boat.

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  48. Daniel Says:

    Anyone see this yet?
    http://www.konami-digital-entertainment.co.jp/en/news/release/2008/1217/index.html

    Sometimes all it takes is one game. If they released the next Dragon Quest game exclusively for iPhone/iPod touch (rather than for DS like they’re doing), then they would sell ridiculous units.

  49. M-Bone Says:

    Good point Daniel, but i’m not sure about the DQ comparison – they decided to go with the DS because of the massive existing base that they can sell to – not to pump the hardware. DQ also appeals mostly to under 18’s – not the best iPhone target anywhere. Metal Gear is a natural, however. But… everybody knows that we can expect to see a Guns of the Pats version on PSP before long….

  50. Daniel Says:

    Don’t forget that a huge part of that user base is made up of people who will never play DQ. They jumped to it (from PS2, right?) because of the numbers, but the hardcore gamers (also DQers and most likely PS3/PSPers) will probably pick up a DS if they don’t have one already. Of course they don’t do it to sell the hardware, but that’s an effect.

    And DQ was just kind of a random choice that was familiar. There’s a fairly well-known list of games that have sold different systems in Japan. Even Microsoft has started to figure that out. Maybe it is Apple that is slow to the game here. If they had an exclusive to run with the release, it might’ve been bigger, but they’ve only been touting it as a gaming device recently. You’ve got to give them credit for adapting though – I vaguely remember Steve Jobs making comments about how no one wanted to watch movies on iPods because they are too long. Then came TV shows and movies on iTunes. They were tentative with the games at first, too. Maybe if they can lock something down, it will sell more. Although I don’t see Apple trying too hard.

    You’d think they’d at least have the Final Fantasy games available by now. Still, Japanese gaming companies are frothing at cheap downloadable content that doesn’t require boxes, judging by the amount that I’ve seen over the past few months. Maybe 2009 is the year for the iPod touch in Japan.