With Apple’s iPhone due to launch soon in Japan, and much hot air on the blogs and in the press on why the iPhone will or will not be a hit in Japan, it is timely to take a look at what aspects of Apple’s iPhone will make it a failure in Japan, that country where multi-function, multi-feature cell phones are the norm, and paying the equivalent of $500 dollars per phone is not unusual.
1. The carriers will kill Apple’s iPhone in Japan. The Japanese marketplace is littered with the corpses of failed foreign mobiles. Motorola’s smartphone is relegated to the back pages of the catalogues, and the Blackberry isn’t even offered as a consumer device. Nokia has seen limited success (or at least not absolute failure) with SoftBank, but the Razr barely made an impact with DoCoMo, and au don’t even bother. Apple’s iPhone will enter Japan’s market in this shadow of death, and Apple’s insistence on making a deal on its own terms will see carriers favour the more pliable Japanese manufacturers.
2. Its foreignness will kill Apple’s iPhone in Japan. As noted above, foreign phones come to Japan to die. From a consumer’s point of view, Apple’s iPhone will have to demonstrate that it understands the Japanese consumer, a consumer who likes the way his or her current phones work, who is used to a numeric keypad, and to whom an alphanumeric input might even be a novelty, as the penetration of computers, not just at home but at work too, is rather low. Does Apple’s iPhone really understand the Japanese mobile phone consumer?
3. Almost non-existent public wifi will kill Apple’s iPhone in Japan. One great thing about the iPhone is the seamless switching from WiFi to mobile networks. However, in Japan public hotspots are a rarity, with the only option often being stealing from a private individual’s poorly-configured home router. Most coffee shops and railway stations are dead wireless-wise, so the Japanese iPhone user will be stuck with the slower and more expensive 3G network.
4. The keyboard will kill Apple’s iPhone in Japan. As hinted above, almost all Japanese are intimately familiar with thumbing their mobile keypad while few are regular keyboard typers. Not just that, but Japanese keypads, rather than using the Western alphabet-based system (one key rotates through A-B-C-a-b-c, etc), they use kana-based syllabic input, so instead keys rotate through KA-KI-KU-KE-KO, for instace). Japanese iPhone users will need to be able to type one-handed hanging off a strap in a moving train, a task that the current iPhone keyboard is just not up to.
5. No strap eyelet will kill Apple’s iPhone in Japan. This is a bit of a silly one, admittedly, but it is the small things that can make the difference and illustrate that Steve Jobs understands the Japanese market. One way that Japanese express their individuality is to decorate their cell phone with straps; cute characters, screen cleaners, branded straps; Japanese of all ages will want to do the same with their iPhone, and with no eyelet on the current model, Apple deny them this option.
Given these factors above, it is little wonder that Apple’s iPhone in Japan is destined to not be the success it was in the United States.