Only two months after the most-hyped mobile phone launch in Japan, with people queueing round the block to buy it and journalists spilling thousands of gallons of ink in praise of it, the consensus now seems to be that Apple’s iPhone has failed in Japan, with boxes piled high in many stores and sales predictions being halved from the initial one million units in a year. But why, in a country that has embraced the iPod, relegating all bar Sony to a single-digit percentage share of the MP3 player market? It’s an easy question to answer.
Yes, emoji, and emoji alone. It’s missing a FeliCa RFID smart card, but most people use them embedded in credit cards, not phones; everyone talks about wanting One Seg but most people don’t actually watch television on their mobiles; there’s no QR code scanner but there’s a free App Store program to download for that; SD memory cards are popular add-ons, but the iPhone has lots of built-in storage; there’s no place to hang a strap, but an after-market slipcase can be decorated instead; there’s no emoji, yet having a lot of text emoticons and smilies in the dictionary does not paper over the chasm.
Emoji, these small icons (pictured in the top right) that almost every Japanese phone has, for expressing happy and sad faces, hand gestures, weather symbols, sports and hobbies and star signs to name but some of the kinds available, are the killer application, and their absence from the iPhone has killed its sales. One unfamiliar with the Japanese market might think that such a seemingly trivial feature would appeal only to children, but over a third regularly use them, and another two in five sometimes use them, making them second nature to the vast majority of Japanese. For instance, if you’re emailing an invite to go for a beer, on beginning to type “beer” up pops a graphic of a pint mug as an auto-completion option, so why not? That is how emoji have become second-nature to most phone users. For the poor iPhone user on the other hand, on sending the message there’s no nice graphic to add, and on receiving, if they are lucky they’ll see something like “Fancy going for a ¾?”, the dreaded moji-bake corrupted character, if they are unlucky (which is most of the time) the iPhone will relegate the whole of the message into an attachment, requiring an extra step before the reader finds out they cannot.
The not one but two drops in price for light users by SoftBank illustrate that they recognise there are people not really that interested in surfing with the Safari web browser (remember, public WiFi is the exception rather than the rule in Japan) but instead are mail-centric, but without full suppport for both reading and writing emoji, the iPhone is useless. When the iPhone first launched, a review in Nikkei Trendy Net described it as a foreigner with excellent Japanese, noting that although it can handle technical aspects of Japanese very well (the pop-up kana input for instance is a very clever solution that can only work on a touch panel) it fails to understand the culture.
Until Apple realises emoji are the key element of Japanese mobile culture, the iPhone will not sell.