Stuff I Say

DoCoMo, the iPhone, and the so-called Japanese Cell Phone Wonderland

Posted in Apple, Gadgetry, Japan by 51future on March 7, 2008

Before I came to Japan I had a T-Mobile MDA smartphone that ran Windows Mobile. While I was excited to have “the internet in my pocket” as Steve likes to go on about in reference to the iPhone, I did have a love-hate relationship with the phone and when it came time to leave the country I was more than happy to ditch it. Mobile Internet Explorer is a travesty and my little Wizard didn’t have enough battery life or memory to really do anything interesting. Finding and installing applications on it was a pain (.cab files, you won’t be missed) but I did enjoy being able to check my email from anywhere, even though it was slow and usually painful. At one point I installed Google Maps too, but it wasn’t supported on my phone and it didn’t play nice with the EDGE connection at the time. Moreover, I wasn’t able to pinpoint my location and scrolling was, because of both memory and bandwidth constraints, sluggish.

All in all, my use of my phone’s features was limited because the implementation was clunky, and because it wasn’t an integrated device. I wanted my MDA to be my Mp3 player, a camera, and my phone all at once. However, the HTC couldn’t cut it for a lot of reasons. As far as the camera was concerned, the resolution was poor and the camera components were nothing special– this, combined with an exceptionally clunky interface and very little flash memory (32mb) meant that I didn’t use it much. When I did, ActiveSync made sure to make extracting photos from the device as difficult as possible. I still carried my iPod around when I wanted to listen to music. Google maps proved useful in the few instances it worked correctly, but honestly, users shouldn’t be praying for software to function on a phone. It’s a phone. I mean, they could just, you know, call someone for help instead.

I spent hours searching forums in the dark corners of the internet looking for applications that actually ran on my phone; more time than the average user, I imagine, and still, I never found an alternative browser that would install on my device. Mobile WMP drained my battery in the time it took to listen to a CD and it had an interface that looked like something that required a mouse for navigation. It was like the engineers just scaled the default interface down to the lower resolution of the device and called it a day.

As it stands now, the features that I personally look for in a phone– the ones that make or break the purchase are:

  • Simple, Intuitive User Interface
  • Beautifu, Functional Form Factor
  • Strong Phone Functions/Hardware (Battery Life, etc.)
  • Elegant PC/Device Syncing

In a fully integrated device like the iPhone, I append the following requirements:

  • Intuitive Mobile Web
  • Robust music player
  • Rich Application support

I want to replace the camera/iPod/cell phone paradigm with one elegant device that I can work and play on without getting frustrated. Windows Mobile (and possible Android, maybe) are strong in that they are supported on hundreds of devices. There is a lot of choice. Choice of hardware, vendors, mobile providers, etc. However, there is no choice, in my opinion, that compares to the iPhone; ultimately this renders other choices moot.

With that said, I’d like to talk about the misconceptions people have about Japanese cell phones.

There was a post a few weeks back on The Unofficial Apple Weblog talking about the potential carrier for the iPhone in Japan (DoCoMo). (I’m already a DoCoMo customer, and not at all unhappy about the news, but I do have a few concerns which I may write about at a later date.) People always seem to have a lot to say when anyone mentions Japanese cell phones. Usually, the first thing you hear is that Japanese cell phones are “pretty awesome personal communication devices.” Hora, you can buy a coke by holding your phone up to the machine, or pay for a cup of coffee instantly at the convenience store, even when you don’t have cash on you! You can scan bits of the newspaper into your phone and read them on the go, or take pictures of bar codes and be transported directly to a specific web page to download new content! Amazing!

What you don’t hear very often is that these features are often gimmicky, expensive or non-existant, and/or pointless for American consumers. Who doesn’t carry their wallet and a credit card around? Do you really think paying wirelessly with your phone is going to be more secure and/or convenient than paying with a credit card? Paying via your cell phone is a big thing in Japan because Japan is a cash society where credit cards are relatively rare. Bar code reading and the like is mostly just a gimmick unless you’re interested in paying for whatever it is that barcode links to. Scanning text into your phone via the camera is a nifty idea, but (on my phone, at least) it’s slow, clunky and not necessary. Sure, it might be neat to show off at a party, but is it something you’re going to be using everyday? No. If you have time to scan the newspaper into your phone, but don’t have time to carry it, I propose that you live in a bizarro world.

There is a lot of bad writing floating around the web that deifies Japanese technology and shits all over everything else like this piece of tripe in the San Francisco Gate.

There’s a tremendous divide between the average Japanese consumer and his Stateside counterpart. Call it the gadget gap or the device deficit — call it what you will, as long as you recognize that, where cool high-tech stuff is concerned, America is light-years behind its counterparts in the Far East.

Having lived in both rural and metropolitan areas in Japan, I offer the following perspective:

I won’t argue that many newer homes don’t have pretty spiffy electronic toilets, but the vast majority of Japanese people are still kneeling over these. As far as consumer electronics are concerned, even the worst Japanese brands are more expensive than the best American counterparts and on average I pay a hefty premium on even the most basic consumer electronics here. (Some recent premiums: $60 extra on Time Capsule, $200+ on my MBP, $60 on a 500GB hard drive, etc. etc. etc.) There aren’t rows and rows of gigapixel cameras at firesale prices on store shelves here, and really, right now in Japan you’d be lucky to find bargains even on commodity hardware. I wasted $60 on a basic 10/100Mb router (without reliable port forwarding) recently and right now pay $5 a month on top of my ADSL service fee to rent a “modem/router” that has no wireless and only a single ethernet port.

With all the misinformation floating around the internet, it doesn’t surprise me that people, more frequently than not, often echo the same misled ideas about the Japanese cellular market.

This Newsweek article, which talks about how the failure of NTT DoCoMo to dominate the international market the same way they dominated their national markets is an example of the current failings of Japanese innovation and a result of the (Japanese) corporate struggle to innovate, seems to sharply contrast this MSNBC fluff piece that claims that Japan is a “wireless vision of the future for [the] U.S.” Digging into the articles itself, you find that only one lends credibility to the other.

From Newsweek:

The would-be worldbeater proved tone-deaf. DoCoMo was so enraptured with its state-of-the-art Internet service that it failed to notice that the long, intricate menus favored by Japanese consumers didn’t impress foreign customers who were looking for more-intuitive interfaces. One reason for the failure to communicate: not a single person in senior management was non-Japanese. “With the right approach they could have become a Google,” says Gerhard Fasol of the Tokyo consultancy Eurotechnology Japan. “They had the chance—but they blew it.”

Read that and then move on to the MSNBC story. The closing quote is telling:

Takeshi Natsuno, considered the father of I-mode — the landmark service of communications giant NTT DoCoMo that granted Japanese easy access to the Internet via cell phones in 1999 — argues that U.S. cellular phone companies have simply mishandled the concept by employing different signal “standards,” or cellular languages, which made it difficult for cell phones to communicate with the Internet.

“Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, the Japanese are strange. They love tiny and miniature things and that’s why cell phone services have taken off here,’ ” Natsuno said. “But the truth is that we are normal, and it’s the other guys who are something odd. It’s not about being Japanese. It’s about knowing what people want and how to sell it the right way.”

The conclusion I’m getting to is simple. Apple (and the iPhone) could be a major force in the Japanese cellular market in the days ahead. The market here is fiercely competitive. Everyone already has a cell phone, so companies like DoCoMo and Softbank are trying to appeal to the rapidly diminishing younger generation and the capricious consumers interested in flair over form and function. True, there are some really slim phones here (mine is a little thinner than a cd case when closed) however there’s no device out right now in Japan that could compete with the iPhone as far as features and performance are concerned. If Steve is willing to jump on the gimmick train and make sure it interacts with all the newly upgraded Coca-Cola machines and the Tokyo Suica system, he could have another huge hit on his hands. Remember what the iPod did to the Walkman?

The only remaining unknown is whether the notoriously brand-loyal Japanese will accept what could be a new dimension of cell phone usage in a country where cell phones sales are overtaking the PC business. In the iPhone’s case, I’d argue that there is no clear answer. With the push towards phones replacing traditional PCs combined with the mindshare Apple has here, I think that they’d have no problem making it happen.  Eight hours after Macworld 2008 I had teachers coming up to me and asking if I’d heard about the MacBook Air. Not all that incredible until you consider that my BoE got their first computer only 7 years ago.

While the cold, logical part of me knows for a fact that there’s no Japanese iPhone because there’s no 3G iPhone yet, I often wonder if DoCoMo might purposely be beating around the bush with Apple in order to give Japanese manufacturers a chance to catch up.

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