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The iPhone and Japan

August 13th, 2013

A few days before Apple officially announced the first release of the iPhone in Japan, I wrote on whether or not it would be popular here. The popular belief was that the iPhone would flop, because of stiff competition from “advanced” Japanese mobile phones, and because the iPhone lacked features like emoji or a strap loop. Many articles were published stating why the Japanese people would just hate the iPhone.

My prediction, not surprisingly, was that the iPhone would succeed, but would take off slowly in the first year or two. Which is what happened. My take at that time:

[A]s soon as Japanese users–conditioned to simply take the standard Japanese fare without question–begin to see and hear about what the iPhone can do, it will take off.

It might take a year or two, but it will eventually trend that way. I seem to recall that when the iPod was introduced in Japan, people similarly predicted it would have trouble catching on because the Japanese market was already saturated with and dominated by advanced, domestic-produced music players. But today, when I walk around town, I see most people using iPods. The success was not immediate, as I suspect the iPhone’s will not be. But the iPhone should succeed despite the naysayers’ reasons, in just the same way as the iPod did before.

Sure enough, for the first year or two, the iPhone was not easy to spot in public. The best place to see what kind of phone people have is to ride the trains, where most people seem to use them pass the time. In that initial year, I did not see many iPhones in use.

Now, however, it is very different. When I ride the train, I will often look around and take a quick count of phones within view.

Almost invariably, about half the phones in view are iPhones.

Now, that does not mean that iPhones have 50% of the Japanese market; it may just mean that iPhones provide better entertainment on a train. However, it is kind of telling.

Amusingly, a site which tracks the best-selling smartphones in Japan biases its results on iPhone sales. Since the time the iPhone came out in Japan, the site reported sales of iPhones divided by internal flash memory capacity—a measure it uses for no other phone. When carrier Au picked up the iPhone, the site further split the rankings by carrier—again, only for the iPhone. Other phones with multiple carriers and capacities are given a single, consolidated ranking.

The reason is obvious: were they to do otherwise, the iPhone would be the only phone ever to inhabit the #1 spot.

Take today’s rankings, for example. The Xperia A tops the charts, having been released just a few months ago. Sitting at #3 is the Galaxy S4, released in late April.

The iPhone, release almost a year ago, has the #2 slot. And the #4 slot. And #5, and #6. The slots are for the 16GB Softbank iPhone, the 16GB Au iPhone, the 32GB Softbank iPhone, and the 32GB Au iPhone, in that order. The 64GB Softbank iPhone rests at #29, with the 64GB Au version at #31.

This despite the fact that not only is the iPhone 5 much older than the competing models, but it is about to be refreshed in just a month or so—a fact which usually depresses sales rather significantly.

Clearly, if the iPhone were treated like all other phones and ranked as a single device, it would be #1, and it would stay there all the time.

Which is strange, because Japanese people were supposed to hate the iPhone.

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  1. Tim
    August 14th, 2013 at 16:30 | #1

    In Korea, it appears, the government did its best to delay the entry of the Iphone, a nontariff barrier, to give the local players time to cook up a response. It did not arrive until November 2009. By then Samsung had some of its early Galaxy models released. The Iphone immediately dominated the market.

    These days when you ride a train, subway or bus, the phones you notice the most are the big screen phones from Samsung and LG, especially the note. In fact, it seems as if you have a small phone, it is so yesterday. It basically implies that you can’t afford to upgrade. Kind of like American cars in the 50s 60s and 70s when only size mattered. The Iphone appears to have been largely abandoned in preference for the larger screen phones. Again, this is just people showing off stuff. I think, because of the acknowledged, or perceived, qualitative edge, that Apple would retake the lead if it offers larger screen variants on the iphone. This, I think is worth while bragging points – for Apple to dominate in Samsung and LG’s home markets.

  2. Troy
    August 19th, 2013 at 08:47 | #2

    Apple releasing iBook reader for Mac has prompted me to work on my iBook Author chops.

    Seems to me the future is digital books, and iBook Author is the best of breed for that maybe (haven’t used InDesign much, it’s also good I guess).

    iBook Author has 3 cool things, JavaScript Widgets, embeddable Keynote, and 5MB local storage per book.

    With all that I think a designer can make some pretty interactive, compelling content!

    Thinking of publishing my Japanese dictionary this way (yes, I’m still working on it after 4 years, sigh).

    Bad news though is that Android is eating Apple’s lunch in the tablet space, getting a lot of purchases from schools that prefer getting locked into Google’s walled garden rather than Apple’s.

    Maybe the walls are lower in Google’s.

    Apple’s down to 40% quarterly sales market share, but ~80% of the North American tablet web traffic is from iPads still, so the overall picture isn’t that bad.

  3. Tim
    August 20th, 2013 at 11:08 | #3

    @ Troy (discussionary)

    The threashold into the garden for users is the device. When I talk to people there’s a general consensus that most material applications available in appleworld are available in googleworld, though appleworld is probably better and less glitchy.

    The transaction cost into the garden then is the device.

    The google world offers a variety of different devices – so you can get one that maps to your needs. I can pick up a Nook HD+ (which I did for a short while) for less than $165. As a media consumption device, which is Luis’ way of framing tablets, it is really fantastic. Very clean and only 8 pixels less per inch than the retina display. It’s great for reading books, magazines, watching video – i.e. consuming media. I took mine back, but I can tell you, its a quality device.

    I ended up buying an Asus Fonepad. It’s 7 inch screen, with just over 216 ppi, 200 ppi per inch seems like a threshold for me when it comes to using the device as a reader. But most importantly it is a gsm phone. So I only have to shlep around one device, and overtime my entire library. And I paid less than $250. There isn’t a device that does that in appleworld, at any price.

    If I had my choice, I’d really liked the ipad-mini – with a phone capability built in and a retina display (an I-phab?). Perhaps we’ll have one soon, but it might cost $650 (as does the Galaxy Note phablet now).

    Anyway the variety of devices available in the googleworld and variety of prices and the relative parity believed by consumers between the ecosystems means that people will stumble into googleworld maybe even while they were purposely saving up to buy into appleworld, and then never leave.

    For private, small or nitch developers, Apple’s customers are likely more affluent and therefore more likely to drop money on apps. So the 40% market share isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    I can see that I will probably, sooner rather than later, be working on putting together some kind of ebook for my students, and I very much want to put in it video content to give examples of life under different legal systems, or even the absence of legal systems. A lot of movies offer dramatizations or composites of what that might look like. I could just plant them in the book. Then talk about that in my text.

  4. Troy
    August 21st, 2013 at 07:25 | #4

    yeah, iOS vs Android is MacOS vs Windows all over again.

    This time at least Apple had first mover status, both in handsets and tablets.

    Apple telegraphed what it was doing with the Mac to Microsoft very early, ca. 1981, and gave Microsoft development systems to write their Mac software on. Microsoft was also able to get Windows out the door, but had a hard time, given the PCs utterly crappy hardware architecture, a design verging on demented in important areas.

    What Apple did with iOS though was really brilliant engineering that gave them a 5 year headstart. Google didn’t have the same issues as Microsoft dealing with x86, and was able to slipstream more easily behind Apple these past 5+ years.

    The first 128K mac had its issues but by 1986 the Mac Plus sorted most things out and 1987’s Mac II was a definitive home-run product, even if it did cost two arms and a leg.

    Meanwhile in PC land Windows got less and less suckier, until 1990 when Windows 3 made cheap PCs almost usable in comparison to Macs.

    No way you could pay me to use Windows prior to NT4 or maybe ’95 OSR2, but people love saving money.

    Even though I’m an Apple fanboy I think Android is going to take over for the reasons you say, people certainly love saving money and (think they) like having choice.

    The google ecosystem can certainly provide this, even if nearly every brick of it has been stolen from Apple.

    So I’m now hedging my skillset bets by getting into two Microsoft technologies, C# via Mono and TypeScript, which compiles into JavaScript.

    For my book idea, I’m developing the embedded “widgets” (DHTML instances) in TypeScript on Windows 7 of all things.

    For my game project, I’m using Mono C# from the Xamarin people on Macs, the MonoGame project, and Visual Studio on Windows too.

    What’s cool is that via Mono and JavaScript these Microsoft environments are completely portable to the Android market. I got a MonoGame project ported from my Mac to Ouya (an Android console) in 3 days of work, and I can develop it on my MBP and send the builds to a friend to test on his Ouya.

    Anyhoo, dynamic textbooks ARE the future. Just yesterday I found the “angle” I needed to get my own Japanese reference idea looking good.

    It’s really fun having a new idea that nobody else apparently has had. My problem is I never stick with finishing all these great ideas, since perspiration is 99% of the deal, as the man said.

  5. Troy
    August 21st, 2013 at 07:36 | #5

    One angle I’m probably going to go in wrt cell access from portables is a portable hot spot. I dislike shelling out hundreds a year for internet access I rarely need so I’ve never had a data plan.

    Virgin has a hotspot plan that costs $5 by the day, and not pay anything the days you don’t use the data plan.


    I’m sure always-on data is great, but I still don’t mind carrying around a cheap-ass flip phone for phone stuff and my iPad for tablet stuff. The phone goes in a pocket so carrying it around isn’t a big deal. Charge lasts about a month so that’s good too.

  6. Tim
    August 21st, 2013 at 08:52 | #6

    I’ve used the VirginMobile mifi device and it was okay – I buy $20 worth of bandwith every time I go on a trip (in the U.S.) and it provides me internet service when I don’t have access by wifi. You might want to check Straight Talk and Walmart Family Mobile (not sure about the walmart name thingy) but you can, I think, get a sim card and put it in a gma device and get unlimited everything for only $40 for a month. Also, If you don’t mind going to a retail store, you can use a Target RedCard and get 5% off anything you buy, which includes Vmobile top up cards, which avoids a much stiffer tax gouge if you buy online. Also, several times a year Target sells Vmobile cards at reduced prices (5% I think) so then you are really getting off cheap.

    I just switched to Tmobile because I’m gone for 4 months at a time and I can buy a thousand minutes for $100, good for a year, which gives me a voice mail account in the U.S. even when I am not in the U.S.

  7. Troy
    August 21st, 2013 at 11:17 | #7

    Virgin just stopped offering my current voice plan, which is $20 (100 minutes) every 3 months.

    They’re letting existing peeps to continue it. If you talk on average less than 30 minutes a month on the phone it’s great. I currently have 4 hours of minutes banked up, shows you how much I use the phone.

    AT&T also had a $100/yr plan, which I had before going to Virgin, to save that $20/yr, LOL.

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