Stuff I Say

More Analysis on the iPhone’s No. 1 Sales Records Last Week in Japan

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on July 6, 2009

So I saw this story via a friend on Twitter, and after reading it I had a lot to say about it, which you can see on the comments over there. However, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about it here, on my own site a little too.

The premise of the article is that the weekly sales numbers of the iPhone 3GS in Japan on the week it launched– namely its No.1 spot, aren’t all that indicitive on it’s popularity and I agree. Weekly sales numbers represent short-term gains which are generally skewed towards new products emerging at the top.

However, delving deeper into the article, we are presented with a few observations about why the iPhone isn’t all that great for Japanese people, which I think, deserve a little discussion.

First, this article has a comparison of iPhone 3G features compared to other cell phones in Japan as of 2008. He uses this data to show that Japanese phones are basically pretty slick and furthermore, to infer that Japanese people don’t really need fancy smartphones to do the things they like to do. At the top of that list are things like One-Seg (TV), which is more of a curiosity than anything else, as reception tends to be terrible, among other problems, followed by things like hardware customization (namely the little loops that you hang ornaments off of) and subscriber IDs for Japanese-only cell phone sites. The article is old and some of those things, like One-Seg, skins, etc. have been mostly remedied, so in the latest article he notes that the iPhone can’t subscribe to the big three mobile social networking sites in Japan, Mixi, Mobage-town, and Gree.

This is true, but it isn’t the iPhone’s fault. These sites lock it out and they tell you why too– because when you go to those sites on the iPhone, they tell you that you aren’t using a phone! You’re using a PC to access them. Get off your PC and go get your phone silly! He asks whether you would use a phone that doesn’t have access to Facebook, Myspace, etc. and the answer that an American person would give you, would probably be a resounding YES. We’ve been buying phones for years that can’t access the internet or popular social networking sites, but then again, the culture is different. Japanese people, I think, feel safer when they can cloak themselves in the odd veil of anonymity on sites like Mixi and communicate with people who may or may not be advertisers or criminals in disguise. And they typically use their phones for things other than calling people, because mobile minutes in Japan are more expensive than typical American plans. So while the question isn’t applicable to Americans as much as it is to Japanese, I think that the logic is sound. Access to social networking in Japan is probably a big deal, but the better question to ask is, as I mentioned in the comments there: “Would you continue to use Facebook if they locked you out of it based on your hardware or OS?” The fact that Mixi doesn’t allow iPhone users to register is really Mixi’s problem, not Apple’s or Softbank’s, and I think that anyone who’s thinking about an iPhone is probably smart enough to figure out where the real blame lies and make their own decision.

In the comments, we started talking about the fact that DoCoMo couldn’t secure the iPhone and while I think this is interesting, I’m not really sure what that means as part of the greater picture. Although Akky claims that Apple has managed to secure contracts with the biggest/most popular providers in America and other places, I’d like to think most Americans and Europeans might disagree that Apple has secured the best carriers in their respective areas. For every person who’s used AT&T, there’s someone who would rather have an iPhone on Verizon or T-Mobile, and, interestingly enough, I imagine Verizon didn’t take the iPhone contract initially, because, like DoCoMo, they wanted too much control over the software– control that Apple wasn’t willing to give up because it would defeat the purpose. Softbank’s new subscriber rates have soared recently because of the iPhone and I’m sure DoCoMo would have loved to claim the same thing, had they been able to loosten their iron grip on the handset enough to have taken it under their wing. DoCoMo couldn’t allow the iPhone on their network because they didn’t want people to A) use a non-iMode browser to access the internet, and B) have access to 3rd-party applications on the App Store. i-Mode is DoCoMo’s moneymaker and lovechild and they think it’s the greatest thing in the goddamn world. When Apple was like, “Here, check out the whole internet,” they probably recoiled in surprise and told Jobs to shove off. Really, the only thing DoCoMo has going for it right now is it’s huge subscriber base. You talk to Japanese people who are on DoCoMo and all they do is admit that, “Yeah, it’s expensive,” and that they “should probably change service providers, but I dunno– my friends use it and I don’t want to bother changing to save a bit of money.”

Akky comments that new Japanese phones surprise and enthrall viewers when you show off their features, but I disagree. I still remember when I went into the DoCoMo shop to cancel my contract a year ago. The employees there all stopped what they were doing and ran over to check out my new phone. When I show people things like this (my latest RunKeeper run): it blows their mind. Show me a Japanese phone that does that and I’ll agree that Japanese phones are all that and a bag of chips. Until then the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen a Japanese phone do is One-Seg, and I got to watch that for exactly 3 seconds before it cut out and the guy spent the rest of our lunch trying to find a signal again. (The iPhone does One-Seg now anyway, with an add-on.)

The final bit I have to say involves cell phone-only sites in Japan, things like Mixi and blogs and stuff. People say that these are important– that since the iPhone doesn’t support them (again, this is not a question of support, but rather, sites locking out Mobile Safari) it’s not that popular. Just how popular these sites are generally, I don’t know. Lots of really popular things (SMAP, Greeen, etc.) are only popular within specific groups in Japan (中学生、高校生, for instance). My girlfriend uses AU’s mobile net to find us hotels and information sometimes, but when it comes to the real heavy lifting, like the hotel we booked today, she does it on a PC because on a phone it’s just inconvenient or impossible. I’ve only met one or two people in real life who bother with Mixi, et. al, and I used to know a high school girl who had a cell phone-only blog that I didn’t end up reading, because, well, my iPhone was locked out. Furthermore, cell phone sites in Japan are hotbeds of criminal activity and online bullying, mostly because (I imagine) people think they’re more private than full-on computer web sites, coupled with the fact that the average young (ie. stupid/exploitable) person in Japan is more likely to have a cell phone than a computer. My point is that I’m not sure these perceived uses are really as popular as the typical Japanese person might think and I think the greater issue with the iPhone is that Japanese hardware moves faster than Apple’s American design focus in regards to things like Suica railpass access built into phones and the digital wallet features that are catching on here in Japan.

In closing, I agree with Akky that the numbers aren’t everything. However, I disagree that the numbers aren’t substantial. Softbank is the weakest carrier, as far as subscriber numbers are concerned, in Japan and those sales represent more than just hardware– every iPhone comes with a Softbank contract.

And another important aspect of all this that no one article has really touched on is the sales of iTouch devices in Japan. Those devices can download applications from the App Store too and as far as I know iTouch sales in Japan are doing well on their own. If the iTouch gets as much market penetration as the original iPods have in Japan, sales in the App Store are going to explode regardless of how the iPhone does, and this will push other Japanese industries, namely websites and other gateways to support Mobile Safari out of necessity. Taking this a step further, I postulate that kids in Japan growing up with an iTouch today, which they will be, given that Apple has all but pushed the other, older iPod designs out to pasture, are going to be buying iPhones in droves when they grow up and grow out of all the microblogging and (anti?)social networking they do on their phones when they’re young. Why? Because they can use all their applications they’re already purchased across all their devices. And hell, the iPhone even has proper cross-carrier e-moji now!

So, yes Akky is right. Those numbers aren’t specifically important or indicative of anything major, but the underlying trend, I think, is pretty clear.

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