Sunday, December 18, 2011

iPhones overtaking the Galapagos

It wasn't that long ago that Japanese cell phones were considered the most advanced in the world.
They were developed by, and for, Japanese users, with functions that were so intrinsically linked to Japanese culture that the makers somehow didn't bother to export to other countries. (e-mojis anyone?)
Back about seven years ago when I was an exchange student, most american cell phones were black and white, and the most advanced feature on them was a melody for a ring-tone (ok, there were PDAs but they were terrifically expensive).
And yet, as documented by yours truly, even way back then my cheapo Japanese model had full color, Java support for games, text-completion, a camera, and if you were willing to shell out the yen, internet support.

Fast forward a few years after that, Japanese phonese evolved even further to have email, SMS, analog television, 'digital wallet' IC chip feature you could use to buzz through train ticket gates automatically, infrared remote to beam information to your friend's phone without emailing it... and of course the highest megapixel count cameras you could want in a cell phone.
If those weren't enough, extra application downloads were just a button click away.

They evolved in a closed ecosystem independently from the rest of the world, filling their own environmental niches. Thus, Japanese cell phones (keitai) were nicked-named after the isolated archipelego, the 'galapagos islands'.
But these last few years, like a foreign species taking root, the iPhone has been sweeping even the Japanese market. Although it's much easier to type in Japanese in standard Japanese phones (they were built with that in mind!) and other complaints I hear on a daily basis from my coworkers, the sheer number of people using iPhones is causing an envy factor.
Now that major cellphone carriers SoftBank and recently, AU, have the licenses to sell iPhones, they've been selling like hotcakes. Or Beard Papa's chou-creams.

Why is this ?
There are still a lot of features from normal Japanese keitais that haven't been picked up by iPhones, things that are convenient and often taken for granted. Like the 'osaifu-keitai' - (digital money system).

I'm thinking the root of iPhone popularity is a combination of two things.
One, iPhone Applications are fun and often free, and universal for all carriers, and visible on the web for everyone, making them talking points.
Two - while Japanese 'Galapagos' phones have an overwhelming number of impressive features, these are hidden on text-only back menus.
Case in point; I've owned my current keitai for over three years now, and am STILL finding new things out about my phone: For instance - a jogging GPS tracker that will post your stats online for you and tell you how far you've run. This is a big feature! But it doesn't have much of a presence on the phone, or app store, and hence isn't something you'd chat about over the water cooler at the office. I know I have a Japanese - English dictionary pre-installed on my phone because I explicitly asked for such a model. But it was so hard to find, the clerk at the store had to show me how to bring it up.

Now on the iPhone, of course, really every single feature on the phone is visible with a bright graphic button visible on the first page. Easy to use, pretty, easy to talk to your friends about.

I was reading Malcom Gladwell's book 'What the Dog Saw', and it had an interesting article about the salesman Ron Popeil who made those kitchen gadgets you always see ads for on cable TV.
This particular quote about the difficulty of use of the VCR (another Japanese invention?) caught my eye as particularly relevent.

"If Ron had been the one to introduce the VCR, in other words, he would not simply have sold it in an infomercial.

He would also have changed the VCR itself, so that it made sense in an infomercial.
The clock, for example, wouldn’t be digital. (The haplessly blinking unset clock has, of course, become a symbol of frustration.)
The tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door — it would be out in plain view, just like the chicken in the rotisserie, so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn.

The controls wouldn’t be discreet buttons; they would be large, and they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it.

And would it be a slender black, low-profile box? Of course not.
Ours is a culture in which the term “black box” is synonymous with incomprehensibility.
Ron’s VCR would be in red-and-white plastic, both opaque and translucent swirl, or maybe 364 Alcoa aluminum, painted in some bold primary color, and it would sit on top of the television, not below it, so that when your neighbor or your friend came over he would spot it immediately and say, “Wow, you have one of those Ronco Tape-O-Matics!”

I guess what I'm trying to say is, the iPhone is like a Japanese cell phone, re-invented by Ron Popeil.