The Galapagos Syndrome and the Extinction of Japanese Cell Phones
October 18, 2010 2 Comments
Arguably, Japan’s wireless infrastructure and Japanese cell phones are among the most sophisticated in the world. Many, if not all have been equipped with internet browsing capability since the late 1990s and have since pioneered the integration of 12.1 megapixel cameras, digital television, music downloads, solar powered batteries, waterproofing, swivelling screens, GPS tracking, bar code reading, video conferencing, face recognition and the abilities to function as a credit card or a boarding pass, among countless other features.
Though some may gape in shock at the bevy of features offered (and unless you’re living in Europe or East Asia, at how late the local wireless carriers have been to the game), the very complexity and uniqueness of Japanese cell phones have puts the entire market at risk of extinction.
Since the onset of the decade, Japanese cell phone makers have been unable to hawk their wares internationally. Phone makers have refused to adapt to the needs and restrictions of markets overseas, as the infrastructure their phones demand was and continues to be nonexistent. Data plans required to make full use of all features of Japanese phones, for example, are still too expensive for the average cell phone user in North America. Oftentimes, unique characteristics of Japanese phones (like their affinity to the clamshell design) are unappealing to a wider market.
Which is where we end up now: hyper-advanced phones with proprietary software that no one outside of Japan can use or want, sold in a market that’s been shrinking year after year.
Solutions to the Problem
Strip out features and market products overseas: How much can it possibly cost to take out all the features that don’t work in other countries (i.e. credit card function) and sell their products overseas? The novelty of Japanese phones is sure to find a niche in markets around the world and would buy them some time (and money) to develop a more cohesive, more global product line.
Stop wasteful spending: Stop pouring cash into things people don’t need or particularly want. Like 3D digital TV on phones. Or waterproofing. That’s all well and nice, but the fundamentals should always come before the extras (the fundamentals, of course, being the user interface. See point #6).
Ditch the clam, or at least provide alternatives: Seriously. The clamshell design has been around since the advent of the mobile phone. Although it may remain popular in Japan, clamshells aren’t selling anywhere else en masse and Japanese phone companies might want to try something else. Like touchscreen phones. And the argument about crappy touchscreens from anything non-Apple? Invalid. If they can stuff a 12.1 megapixel (the megapixel count is probably higher now) camera into a phone, they sure as hell can come up with a decent, preferably capacitative touchscreen on future products.
GSM: As the international standard for telecommunications, GSM is used in more countries and by more carriers than CDMA is. Unfortunately, part of the reason CDMA is used in Japan is because of the restrictive nature of the market itself, making domestic wireless services solely available on domestic phones (you follow?). Sure, there are some Japanese phones which are GSM capable, but such are the exception to the rule rather than the standard. Churning out more GSM capable phones would make Japanese cell phones more competitive in markets around the globe.
Merge product lines: Visit any Japanese wireless carrier’s website and you’ll be overwhelmed by their needlessly expansive lines of virtually identical phones. The development of each phone is also a costly and time consuming endeavour, as each phone and its respective user interface are developed from the ground up despite visible and functional similarities. Bottom lines would surely improve if companies were to focus all of their time, effort and resources into cutting down and streamlining the swathe of phones currently offered into a single quality product (i.e. Apple’s iPhone).
Less hardware, most software: Although the hardware used in Japanese phones is light years ahead of anything offered by foreign manufacturers, clunky and often unwieldy software prevents the complete realization of the phone’s full potential. It’s easy to see how this has become a problem. Despite all the bells and whistles offered by domestic makers, the iPhone (and all 1.7 million units of it) has become Japan’s best selling smartphone.
There is already a solution to address this problem: Android. By adapting Android, Japanese phone manufacturers not only save themselves boatloads of cash in R&D, but give their phones access to more than 70 000 applications, more functionality and regular updates and improvements to the way users interact with their phones.