In the last ten years, Japan has led the world in mobile services. Beginning in 1999, NTT DoCoMo introduced a content service called i-Mode. They followed this in 2001 with a Java application service called i-appli. In addition, Japan was ahead of other nations in the development and introduction of digital money and TV streaming services.
More recently, however, the Japanese mobile phone service industry seems to have reached a plateau and few, if any, exciting new services have been released in the past few years. Fortunately, the emergence and success of the iPhone is changing that situation. The entry of this innovative phone into the market is having a huge impact on the Japanese mobile phone culture which, up to this point in time, has developed in an exclusively domestic environment.
All-in-one mobile phones
Japanese tend to prefer all-in-one mobile phones with the functions they need already built into them. It’s true that the iPhone has a variety of built-in functions. However, one of its main strengths is its ability to add functionality via the App Store, download music and video content from iTunes and YouTube, and access additional content from the Internet via Safari.
Acceptance of phones with incredible expandability, as opposed to all-in-one solutions with limited add-ons, will take time in the Japanese market. And some believe that it will be hard for the iPhone to capture a significant share of the Japanese mobile phone market. However, Softbank—the Japanese telecommunications giant and the iPhone’s distributor in Japan—has committed significant resources to promote the device. In addition, strong word-of-mouth support is contributing to the acceptance of the iPhone.
Finally, the success of the iPhone is influencing the design of other mobile phones. Many manufacturers have adopted the touchscreen design on their devices, and other telecoms have announced that they will release touchscreen phones based on the Android OS this summer.
A boon to Japanese app developers
The iPhone is changing more than user perceptions. It is giving application developers a chance to extend their business beyond the Japanese market. Since the iPhone was released, many apps created by Japanese developers have received widespread attention and generated tremendous profits.
PocketGuitar turns your iPhone into a virtual guitar.
One of the most famous Japanese applications is PocketGuitar (podmap.net/pocketguitar), an app that turns your iPhone or iPod touch into a virtual guitar. Japanese game developers also joined the market, providing iPhone versions of popular titles like BomberMan (dothehudson.net/en) and Metal Gear Solid (konami.com/touch).
The Japanese publishing industry is also paying attention to the success of the iPhone. Digital comic books are one of the largest mobile service markets in Japan, but it’s not easy to provide comics online due to complicated copyright issues. However, the number of apps that deliver content created for iPhone will be increasing. One such app is SENNEN-GAHO by Machiko Kyo, which will be released soon.
Finally, Japanese users prefer to use functional applications to check train schedules, keep memos, find restaurants, etc. This preference gives rise to a variety of opportunities for individual programmers and small app development companies to enter the iPhone app market.
A new mobile phone/mobile services era
Almost one year has passed since iPhone appeared in Japan. Its introduction rattled the Japanese mobile phone industry in fundamental ways, and its success over the last year has been a wake-up call for the mobile services industry. The lessons are simple: don’t cling to existing customs; adapt to the new era and prosper from it.