Exactly a year ago, I started up at Motorola, when it was still just ‘Motorola’, and watched as the Western phone industry simply pummeled the East in terms of raw hardware processing power and simple software capability. RIM was still alive at the time, Apple was still beating out every individual smart phone maker, Motorola was establishing itself as an Android powerhouse, and Nokia still held onto its control of the dumbphone market. Sure, HTC had a strong hold of the Android market then, and Samsung remains very prolific, but there was no longer the several year gap between Asian and Western mobile phone technology. The West was now winning by both numbers, hardware prowess, and software superiority.
I was just beginning my specific focus on studying the Japanese and Korean cell phone markets under Jeff Shrager, and increasingly noticed that the Japanese mobile phone industry, which had always been famous for crazy designs and outstanding functionality, seemed stagnant. As I kept digging into my research, causes ranging across the entire spectrum seemed to have sent the Japanese phone industry into a coma.
Now, the Japanese mobile phone industry has never really stepped outside of the island nation. Japan is notorious for suffering form the ‘Galapagos Syndrome’, a now well studied and widely paralleled characteristic of the Japanese mobile phone industry, tech industry, and even culture. Calling it a syndrome, however, makes it sound like a bad thing. The negative effect is obvious: Japan literally became a mobile phone Galapagos, growing independently so that Japanese mobile phones did not appeal to or could not be used to their full potential by non-Japanese users. On the flip-side, non-Japanese phones also did not appeal to Japanese users. Japanese mobile phones grew to have many Japan-only functions, filled with proprietary plugs and functions, as well as a distinct clamshell form factor. They also lacked the injection of global innovation to keep things fresh. How Japanese users used their phones grew independently as well, but I won’t get into that here. The positive effect is more subtle: the smaller market and inward focus allowed for quick innovation, testing of gimmicks, culturally relevant functionality and design, lightning fast product releases, and finally, growth without pending the official or user/developer acceptance of industry standards.
In 2008, the Japanese mobile phone industry hit its rut. New governmental regulations discouraged developers and carriers, innovation had slowed, and Apple’s iPhone humbled Japanese mobile phone developers. Japanese users had embraced the iPod, but rejected the original iPhone because of its lack of ability to jump onto Japanese 3G networks, and, of course, because of the lack of a cell phone strap hole, among several other reasons. But soon enough, Apple’s powerhouse managed to be one of the few cases of Western penetration of the Japanese mobile phone market. And it dominated. Here’s why: prior to the iPhone, Japanese mobile phone users hadn’t really had exposure to a true ‘smartphone’. Rather, Japanese mobile phones, by the standards of Westerners were all dumbphones, with very specific and specialized functionality. When the do-it-all iPhone hit with 3G functionality, it had very little competition. Samsung and HTC, who had and continue to strive to break the Japanese mobile phone industry, had not managed to make such a splash. Japanese mobile phone developers, who generally focused on hardware specifications and lacked pure software engineers, struggled to match the polished and relatively flexible touch interface of iOS at the time. By 2008, Japanese phones, through blips of Western journalists, had rightfully gotten a reputation for powerful, eclectic hardware and convoluted software with difficult UIs. It seemed that in its standstill, and with the iPhone’s monopoly of the smartphone market, Japanese developers would never be able to turn the situation around.
Then Google Android jumped onto the scene. The iPhone had given the Japanese mobile industry the splash of water that it needed to open its eyes again to innovation. Android was and is the vehicle the industry is using to wake up spectacularly from the coma that it has been in for a while. The vast majority of Japanese developed smartphones are now Android-based. Being open-sourced, when the term is used loosely, Android provided a versatile, modern, iOS alternative to Japanese mobile phone developers. Since Japanese mobile phone developers lack designers and software developers, using Android both allowed the use of a powerful new industry standard, without the need for much software expertise. Carrier customization, which is big in Japan, was also rather simple, with slight layout and asset modifications. Carriers were also able to continue to deliver carrier specific content to their users through private Android marketplaces. Not having to focus on software allowed Japanese mobile phone developers to focus on what they do best: delivering handsets with superior hardware technology and Japanese-relevant functionality. Since the introduction of Android-based smartphones, the iPhone has been gradually losing its impact. The President and CEO of NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s dominant mobile carrier by a long shot, Ryuji Yamada even directly stated that Android will quickly ‘catch up’ to the iPhone very quickly. NTT DoCoMo’s summer 2011 smartphone lineup features eight smartphones, six Japanese developed, and five running Android. The designs include waterproof phones, 1seg, mobile payment-standard Japanese hardware innovation, along with newer innovations such as 3D screens and cameras. The form factors are creative and on-par with the best of Motorola, Samsung, and HTCs new devices, and Japanese users are snatching them up.
Maybe we need a little innovation from Japan now. It’s our turn to be humbled, again. All our phones look the same.