Monday, July 20, 2009

Is Japan The Mobile Handset Galápagos?

A great story in the Sunday New York Times discusses the inability of Japanese handset manufacturers to parlay their ostensibly ultra-cool & uber-advanced domestic devices into worldwide consumer phenomena. Despite having developed capabilities like email in 1999, cameras in 2000, 3G in 2001, full-track downloads in 2002, mCommerce in 2004, broadcast TV in 2005, as well as super useful shit like universal barcode readers & video conferencing, companies like NEC, Panasonic, Fujitsu & Sharp get absolutely no love outside the land of the rising sun. The article attributes the problem, primarily, to inelegant, proprietary & "clunky" software...which makes developing apps for the devices cumbersome for publishers...and a Japanese proclivity for oversized clamshell style devices. While I think the software & style points are valid, I think the bigger issue is the difference in the evolution of how Japanese & most non-Japanese consumers perceive/use their mobile devices.

In Japan the mobile device, for most consumers, was the first & primary access point to the internet (and email) and NTT DoCoMo's iMode was the equivalent of AOL, Mosaic & Outlook...which was accessed from an NEC handset over the carrier's network, rather than from a Dell Inspiron 7000 with a 28.8 modem. Therefore Japanese handsets were basically 12-key netbooks from their inception. The capabilities that were mission critical for those devices - email, browsing, chatting & commerce - weren't important in (for example) the US, because early adopter types and soccer moms already had laptops to handle those functions. For Americans, until very recently, their mobile was for calls, texts (never big in Japan) and narcissistically repping badass-ness with a kickin' polyphonic tone. A device that could manage those tasks with the added benefit of looking slick in your hand, on your ear on next to your cutlery at Houstons (e.g RAZR) was an American rockstar. But now that the iPhone has enlightened the average Western consumer to the virtues of the mobile internet and the utility of downloadable apps, perhaps the ways in which we use and perceive our mobile phones are homogenizing with those of the Japanese...and, perhaps, their technologically sophisticated handset industry is going to surprise us with some uniquely evolved superstars in the smartphone game.

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