Although I started out as somewhat of a skeptic about the iPhone, mainly in reaction to the blanket news coverage it has been receiving, reflecting on the situation I now consider that the iPhone has what it takes to be big in Japan; indeed to become the very first foreign mobile phone (Sony-Ericsson doesn’t countas foreign!) to be a success in Japan’s rather insular market. There are, however, a small number of additions and modifications that I propose Apple must make to the hardware, software, and design before they can consider selling it in Japan.
iPhone: Japan’s carriers
Looking at the market image of the three big mobile phone carriers, namely NTT DoCoMo, au by KDDI, and SoftBank, the most natural fit would be au, as according to many surveys they have the strongest image for being on the leading edge and for supporting music playback on their phones. However, if a bidding war starts, SoftBank may be prepared to lay the most cash on the table as they are most desparate for customers, and with Cameron Diaz and Bradd Pitt pushing an American image of talking on the phone for SoftBank, SoftBank’s president Masayoshi Son may see the iPhone as a natural extension of his brand. Therefore, I predict there will be a SoftBank iPhone on the shelves early next year.
iPhone: Japan needs 3G
It needs it in the US and in Europe too, so no more needs to be said about it. All Japanese carriers have stopped making new 2G models, so the iPhone must have 3G speeds to avoid being labeled as outdated.
iPhone: Japan needs a worse browser
Safari has been getting rave reviews in the USA, but the Japanese have been browsing for years in the walled garden of made-for-mobile web sites authored in C-HTML, Compact-HTML. There are too many existing services that are already designed for mobile phones for Apple to ignore, so they need to provide a downgraded browser that can support these sorts of sites without any fancy zooming or panning, just scrolling up and down.
iPhone: Japan needs emoji
Nearly three in four Japanese currently sprinkle some or all of their email with small colourful dingbat-like icons built into the phones from all of the major providers. The current methods of selecting these characters seriously needs a usability make-over that people look to Apple to implement, but without smilies, the average Japanese cell phone email would look naked and dull.
iPhone: Japan needs a retro keyboard
The biggest thing that the English-language iPhone seems to have got wrong is the keyboard. With Japanese, this style of keyboard will be even more problematic, and with many people as familiar, if not more familiar, with mobile-phone style keyboards as with traditional QWERTY ones, Apple should accept that as with the browser issues above, the older and more familiar methods of input need to be supported too. As with emoji above, I’m looking to Apple to sprinkle its magic pixie dust over the UI and the input prediction methods, but the underlying paradigm should be the standard 10-key method.
iPhone: Japan needs a strap hook
Almost everyone in Japan hangs some sort of mascot character on their phones, so without a mounting point for these straps, the iPhone will look very bare indeed. It’s just a very small thing, but it’s important and shows to potential consumers that Apple cares about Japan and Japanese sensibilities.
iPhone: Japan has it all already
A common theme running through various articles on the impending failure of the iPhone to penetrate the Japanese market is that all the features exist already in cell phones available in Japan today. While this point is indeed true and the raw feature set of the iPhone has little that is revoultionary, one need only look to Nintendo’s Wii and DS, which on paper are rather limited, or even in fact the iPod, which entered a Japanese market already crowded with offering from both domestic and overseas manufactures, yet still swempt them all away mostly on the strength of brand image and slickly integrated product. I believe the iPhone can help Apple make history repeat itself.
iPhone: Japan doesn’t need…
A recent survey showed that two requirements high in potential purchasers’ minds were One Seg digital terrestrial television and RFID-based electronic cash solutions. However, other surveys have shown that despite the fact that most new models support one or both of these features, the actual percentage of users accessing these features is rather limited. With YouTube support, One Seg television becomes less important, and many more people use traditional card-based electronic cash systems than use mobile phone-embedded FeliCa IC card chips.
Next year we will see a SoftBank Apple iPhone which while it may not replicate the roaring success of the iPhone in the USA or of the iPod in Japan, it will make a definite impact and change the face of the Japanese cell phone market. Up until now there has been perhaps just too cosy a relationship between the carriers and the manufacturers which while not stifling innovation, excluding physical design issues it has not encouraged manufacturers to be bold or different. Even if the iPhone itself never manages to gain a significant market share, its mere presence on the Japanese market can only benefit consumers.