Home > Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News > Will the iPhone Sell in Japan?

Will the iPhone Sell in Japan?

June 7th, 2008

Yesterday, my boss wanted to know what his cell phone number was. It’s not forgetfulness–many of us don’t know that because we never call our cell phones or even give the number out very often. I’ve had my cell phone for more than eight years, and I still don’t know my own number. But the problem my boss had was, he had no idea how to get the number from his own cell phone. So he handed the phone to me, the usual go-to guy for tech issues at my workplace, so I could figure it out. Now, on my own phone, I know how to do this–press Function and then Zero–but someone else had to show me–it was not marked in any menu, nor was it self-evident. It was more like an easter egg, in fact. And when my boss handed me his cell phone, I wasn’t able to figure it out myself. Now, the self-number is a no-brainer as far as features go–almost everybody has to access this from time to time. It should be self-evident, or at least not too hard to figure out. But I couldn’t find it. I went through all the obvious feature-access buttons and cruised the menus (most in English, though the phone sometimes jarringly switched to Japanese), tried sub-menu after sub-menu, checking all the logical suspects. After three minutes or so, I had to hand the phone back in defeat; I could not figure it out.

My own phone is not too dissimilar; it also has lots of features that I wouldn’t mind accessing from time to time. However, most of them are so buried in user-unfriendly toolbars and menus that it would be simply far too much work to figure out. Multiple menus with features too similar to each other to figure out why they have different menus, some features buried in seemingly unassociated menus, bad icon choices for many of the menus in the first place. To use any feature, I would have to dig out my manual (Japanese only except for a brief user’s guide in English, so I have to go into Japanese for any non-basic task) and teach myself how to use it.

The problem here is, unless you use a feature every few weeks–and many phone features you would not use so often–you can easily forget how to do it. Plus, if the task you want to do should only take a few moments, but learning how to do it takes up a solid fifteen minutes, then it starts becoming too much trouble to look it up. If your phone has too many features, then you won’t access many of them often enough to learn how to access them.

A new Wired article makes some good points about this, explaining how massive feature creep has overloaded Japanese phones:

Indeed, Japanese handsets have become prime examples of feature creep gone mad. In many cases, phones in Japan are far too complex for users to master.

“There are tons of buttons, and different combinations or lengths of time yield different results,’” says Koh Aoki, an engineer who lives in Tokyo.

Experimenting with different key combinations in search of new features is “good for killing time during a long commute,” Aoki says, “but it’s definitely not elegant.”

Japan has long been famous for its advanced cellphones with sci-fi features like location tracking, mobile credit card payment and live TV. These handsets have been the envy of consumers in the United States, where cell technology has trailed an estimated five years or more. But while many phones would do Captain Kirk proud, most of the features are hard to use or not used at all.

Now, remember that the primary argument saying why the iPhone will fail in Japan is that it will be a yawner next to most Japanese cell phones, which have for some time featured much of what the iPhone offers, and often much more. While the feature sets in Japan have indeed been rich for a long time, that’s not what makes the iPhone special.

What makes the iPhone special is that it is easy to use. I don’t even have an iPhone, and only used one for a few minutes while helping my sister get used to hers last December, but I am fairly certain that I could have found my boss’ number without any trouble had it been an iPhone. Just go to the contacts, I’m pretty sure it’ll be there. Or else go to the settings, it should be there, too. I just expect these things from an Apple product. (Can anyone with an iPhone confirm that you can get your number either of these ways?)

Japanese cell phones are not like this. I tried using some of those feature-rich ones a few times when I passed a cell phone shop and had some time to look. It was painfully hard. I had a tough time understanding what the heck to do even when I got the salesperson to switch the phone to English (it took them a minute or two to figure even that out themselves). After ten minutes with a nice-looking phone, I decided that I did not want to use the damned thing, as attractive as all its touted features were. Not to mention that some of the “great” features are in fact dogs:

“When I show this to visitors from the U.S, they’re amazed,” Hayashi says. “They think there’s no way anybody would want an iPhone in Japan. But that’s only because I’m setting it up for them so that they can see the cool features.”

In actuality, Hayashi says, the P905i is fatally flawed. The motion sensors are painfully slow, and the novelty of using them is quickly replaced with frustration. And while being able to watch TV anywhere is a spectacular idea, there’s no signal in the subways, and even above ground, the sound cuts out every few seconds.

“There’s nothing more annoying than choppy TV noises,” Hayashi says.

Long story short: Japanese phones have far too steep a learning curve, making most features unusable, and many of the features people would use are not as great as they seem.

That’s where the iPhone does its magic. You can do things with it. The list of features may not be as long, but they are good features, and you can use more of them, more easily. The list of usable features on an iPhone beats out the other phones. The web browsing is huge. Email is good, and the keyboard allows for much easier typing. Visual voice mail is a no-brainer. Google Maps with the search features tied in is huge (I know Sachi and I will use that a lot). The GPS almost certain to be included soon will make it even more attractive (I will use that so much when on my scooter). And you can easily forget that this is an iPod, with hi-res (for a handheld device) video, and the iPhone will probably get video telephony with the new models. Then there will be the app store, allowing for huge expandability. And odds are that most Japanese will be able to figure out more of these features, faster and with less reliance on manuals. Certainly, my boss would have never asked me for help that time if he’d had an iPhone.

That’s a big part of why I really want an iPhone myself. Before the iPhone was announced eighteen months ago, all I really wanted was a cell phone that could sync calendar and address book info with my Mac–I would have switched to another phone instantly had I found it (especially if it were bluetooth-ready). The iPhone delivers a great deal more than that. So despite living in the Nation of Advanced Cell Phones, I will wait for however long it takes to get an iPhone. And as 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.

Unfortunately, we may need to wait a little longer: I dropped by the SoftBank store a few days ago, and the clerks there said they had no more info that was in the terse press release–but that they doubted the iPhone would be released soon. They have already released their summer line of phones, and new phones require setting up with the service. The clerk said a Fall release was the soonest he expected it, and it might even have to wait until the winter line comes out.

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  1. karen
    June 8th, 2008 at 05:21 | #1

    Hi Luis,

    While reading york post I knew immediatey that my phone number was in Contacts, but had to check Settings.

    In Contacts it is at the top of the page above the first contacts in the A section. In Settings it is also at the very top of the page under Phone.

    The big selling point of the iPhone is indeed its ease of use and functionality. Even my husband can use it easily, and he is someone who wants to be able to use a device without reading any instructions or having anyone tell him anything about it.

    Idon’t know whether he’d be willing to type out a comment on it using two fingers on the touch sensitive keyboard, but this is way faster than using the number/alpha keys on a phone.

    Sorry you have to wait so long for it…..


  2. Paul
    June 8th, 2008 at 06:15 | #2

    On the iPhone, your own phone number is:

    Settings button on the main screen
    Phone button on the settings menu

    And there your number is, across the top of the page.

    Pretty simple. The way the iPhone is set up, most things are only a few buttons or menus deep. There are a *few* things that I don’t like about how it’s set up; for example, when you are looking at the “recent calls” listing, if you click on one of the numbers listed (it lists both incoming and outgoing calls, in different colors so you can tell which is which) it automatically dials that number. Well, what if you were just trying to see WHEN the call was and how long it was? It seems a bit counterintuitive to me.

    But the reality is that once you use the thing a bit, you get the hang of it.

    What strikes me about the iPhone is that for some people, it’ll mostly be a media player. For some people, it’ll mostly be a phone. For some people, it’ll mostly be a mobile web device. It can serve any/all of these roles in varying amounts, but by throwing all of it into one device, it saves you from having to carry lots of items around.

    I’m not sure about some things. For example, while it does do email, it’s not the best thing for it. Personally, I much prefer hammering out email or other text on a real keyboard. The iPhone’s keyboard works better than you’d think- I knocked out a pretty decent blog post on it in about 20 minutes in Scotland- but it’s still not a real thing.

    And I am suspect of just how much/effective a GPS would be for an iPhone. It’s already got a GPS-like function where, in Google Maps, you hit the button and it tries to figure out where you’re at based on the location of the cell towers (and, if you happen to have it on, any known Wifi locations nearby that it’s getting a signal from).

    But it’s pretty general. The more densely packed a neighborhood, the more cell sites there will be, and the closer that the phone will be to your actual location- but from testing it out in/around Seattle, I can tell you that it’s just not THAT great.

    Real GPS would definitely be an improvement, but that’s yet another function that will draw down battery power. You wouldn’t want to leave it on all the time, but unless the GPS chipsets have dramatically improved their startup time since my handheld hiking GPS (which is about 4 or 5 years old), to use it in an on-demand basis won’t be all that practical, either.

    GPS takes a while to start up because the device has to acquire enough satellites to get a fix on where it’s at. Now, if the Apple people get really creative (which is a pretty safe bet), they could do some things with the iPhone’s already-built-in functions to shorten this up a bit, but it’ll still be a bit of a trick.

    See, if a device knows roughly where it is and what day/time it is, it shortens the startup time because it can look into its own database of the orbits of the various GPS satellites and know which ones to look for. If it doesn’t (say you just fired it up for the first time and didn’t program the time) it can find all that stuff the hard way, but it can take 3, 4, even 5 or 6 minutes to do it.

    Even when it knows where it’s at (most handheld devices just default to wherever they were the last time they were turned on) and the day/time, it still takes a couple of minutes to acquire the satellites and get enough incoming data from them to figure out its own fix.

    What I’d do, were I Apple, is use the cell towers to get a rough position and then go from there. That should shorten up the startup time… but I still don’t see how it’s going to take less than at least a minute or two. If you’re walking down the street, you’re going to feel like a dork standing there looking at the phone for more than 30 seconds for it to tell you where you’re at.

    And heaven forbid you’re driving at the time; first of all, since you’re moving, it takes longer to get a GPS fix,and in 2 minutes you can go quite a ways away from whatever it is you’re looking for.

    No, I’m a skeptic of how well GPS will work unless it’s always on, and in that case it’s still going to have issues (in buildings, in dense cities where buildings block the satellites, etc) beyond the battery power which is a HUGE deal.

    Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone still kicks butt. 😉

  3. Luis
    June 8th, 2008 at 10:02 | #3

    Thanks to both of you for the comments! Interesting that both my guesses were correct–I think it goes to how well things are set up. Like I said, on my boss’ phone, I went everywhere I could find, and no sight of the phone’s own number. It was just frustrating.

    Paul, very interesting wrap-up on GPS–only having used car GPS location, I had thought that locating was a more or less immediate thing. I’ll have to look into this more. Apparently several phones in Japan already use GPS–it might be one of those less-than-impressive features, sounds great but doesn’t work so well.

    So it will be interesting to see what Apple does. Engadget found GPS stuff in the firmware, so it’s very likely Apple will have it–but it’s also unlikely that Apple would do something half-assed or that would drain the battery real fast.

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