Monday, July 20, 2009

How the iPhone has warped our sense of Japan’s mobile market

In the 70s Japan was brilliant. Smarter, faster, stronger than the rest of the world.

Then Japan seemed to lose its way. When I saw this headline I wondered if the story of Japan’s oddball cell phones held a clue ..

Why Japan’s Smartphones Haven’t Gone Global - NYTimes.com

…  Japan is years ahead in any innovation. But it hasn’t been able to get business out of it,” said Gerhard Fasol, president of the Tokyo-based IT consulting firm, Eurotechnology Japan.

Innovation? Really? It sure doesn’t feel that way. Mr Fasol is a foreign consultant (I’m guessing), so maybe he’s being diplomatic. This description is more plausible …

… Japan’s cellphones are like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands — fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins — explains Takeshi Natsuno, who teaches at Tokyo’s Keio University…

… This is the kind of phone I wanted to make,” Mr. Natsuno said, playing with his own iPhone 3G…

and

… each handset model is designed with a customized user interface, development is time-consuming and expensive, said Tetsuzo Matsumoto, senior executive vice president at Softbank Mobile, a leading carrier. “Japan’s phones are all ‘handmade’ from scratch,”…

Lots of invention, but no ecosystem. It’s all one-offs, again and again. Does this tell us something unique about Japan?

I thought so, but then I realized that the iPhone has warped my sense of history.

If the iPhone hadn’t come along, we’d all be in the same pointless trap – except Japan and Korea would be at the high end and we’d be stuck at the low end – with “smartphones” like Windows Mobile (ugh), the Blackberry (yuch) and the ailing Palm Classic (sigh). Our pre-iPhone mobile ecosystem was just like Japan’s, only much less interesting.

It’s the iPhone that changed the game, and transformed Japan from the future to an isolated island ecosystem. Whatever may come of the iPhone, even if it should fall to Android or Pre or something else, it was genuinely revolutionary. So revolutionary, it’s warped my sense of recent history.

Japan (or, perhaps more likely, Korea) still has a chance though. In the 1970s Japan made lots of computers – using NEC’s proprietary OS. Japan didn’t surge in the PC hardware marketplace until they went to using PC/MS-DOS. (With a major US setback due to congressional trade restrictions blocking desktop imports from Japan – those were the days the US was terrified of Japan.)

If Japan’s manufacturers were to give up on their solutions and focus on Android …

4 comments:

dret said...

Forget Android. If only they focus on JavaFX !

Anonymous said...

> It’s the iPhone that changed the game, > and transformed Japan from the future
> to an isolated island ecosystem.

The iphone hasn't changed anything. it doesn,t have many features that are considered essential in Japan, for example it has no TV reception, its camera is poor, its too large etc it has gained some ground with 3.0 OS but it still has further to go.

John Gordon said...

If the game had not been changed, then the iPhone would be measured by things like its camera and, in Japan, its TV reception (do you mean video reception?).

That was the old game, and in that game the iPhone is third rate. Even in the US, which was a back woods in the old game, there are phones with better cameras and certainly many are smaller.

The new game is a comprehensive pocket-sized international computer (and handheld game console) with a world class development environment, a tolerable DRM system, a marketing and distribution system for international software development, no viruses (signed code) and a software marketing and revenue framework that powers explosive development.

That's the game going forward, and Apple, for all its endless sins, made it work.

The old game isn't interesting any more -- though I do appreciate the light sensitivity and quality of the new camera (for me it's largely about noise and light sensitivity, not so much pixels).

John R said...

This is an excellent perspective, thanks. I've fetishized Japanese phones for a decade and couldn't really put my finger on what was so remarkably game-changing about the iPhone, but you nailed it: Eco-system. "It’s all one-offs, again and again." - brilliant. Each new one is so frequent and so exciting, but it's an endless game.

Actually, to be completely honest, I have an iPhone but still fetishize the Japanese clamshells!