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The iPhone faces an uphill rollout in Japan

August 13, 2008 3 comments

 

iPhone

Well, the iPhone 3G has been out almost one month now and I’d like to post a little belated article on its progress in Japan.

The iPhone has invariably met with rave reviews wherever it has been rolled out and has now cornered 1.1% of the world’s handset market. That’s the world’s handset market, not the smartphone market.

In terms of smartphone market, reports put the iPhone anywhere between 20% and 30% of the total market share. This is a significant achievement for a company that has very low presence in the corporate sector.

But how about in Japan?

A report in June stated that 91% of phone purchasers would not consider an iPhone 3G if released in Japan. This result was put down to various reasons.

The top reason was fixed battery, followed by the carrier, Softbank, which has a rather speckled reputation and is known for its labyrinthine escape clauses on its contracts.

However, since the iPhone was released and the public have had access to the “real thing,” perceptions have changed somewhat, with reviews becoming markedly more popular.

Ironically, though, it’s functions that westerners might feel are unnecessary that are causing the most friction to wide adoption.

No one handed typing

The sideways mode presents a full Qwerty keyboard for typing with great Japanese conversion software, but most phone users in Japan will avoid that like the plague. They’d rather use the iPhone’s 9 key keyboard which has a patented and very advanced Japanese input method which, given just a little practice can be used to type about twice as quickly compared to using any other phone.

The iPhone is larger than your average phone and is actually easier to type on due to the larger surface area available for the keypad. This in and of itself would be considered a great advancement in western terms.b

However, in Japan it’s whether or not you can type one handed -while holding on for dear life onto a support strap on a crowded commuter train- that dictates whether or not a phone will succeed.

The first iteration of the iPhone software was terrible for Japanese, forcing them to use a nasty little Querty Keyboard.

Version 2.0 is much improved and offers Chinese and Japanese handwriting support and a great Kana input method.
But it’s still a little large for Japanese hands!

Remember, we are talking about a market where many a beautiful clamshell phone design has died a death because it can’t be opened with the press of a button or the flick of a thumb.

Given that Japanese women, who like to use their phones for messaging more than men, tend to have smaller hands than their western counterparts  and given that mobiles in general are popular in Japan because practically everyone commutes long distance by train (averaging 30 minutes or more one way on the crowded transport systems of major cities) this is a double whammy against the iPhone’s adoption.

Force a large number of phone users to have to type on their phones with two hands and you’ll cause a nasty crush whenever the train stops and four hundred passengers lurch forward because they weren’t holding on.

I know this happens, because I accidentally got on a newly introduced women’s carriage on a train and all the women were texting away on their phones or reading. Traditionally, rather than raise their own arms and expose their armpits to total strangers, they rely on the more fully dressed men to hold onto the overhead straps and support them when the train stops and starts, but there were no men holding on to the ceiling straps and most of the women weren’t used to this.

When the train stopped, two hundred women in the carriage I was in fell forward, got trapped between the front wall of the carriage and other passengers, fell onto seated passengers or quite dangerously ended up in a mass of arms and legs. Only myself, holding on to the overhead straps and the woman standing next to me, who grabbed me when the train stopped managed to stay upright.

Put a couple of hundred iPhones in the hands of Japanese passengers and repeats of this scene, plus photos of crushed iPhone carnage will be splattered on news sites and newspapers across Japan.

No “emoji”

Emoji are a standardised set of emoticons for all Japanese phones. They cover a wide range of emotions, feelings, convenient objects, actions and places, the weather and transport systems. Without emoji, a Japanese person will have to type a message ten times longer in order to say the same thing and not be misunderstood.

 

Needless to say, the iPhone cannot send emoji. Worse, when receiving emoji from others, the character is replaced with an “=” sign or displayed simply as a code such as #6834, rendering the mail illegible.

If the typing problems don’t put you off, this will make the email function practically worthless.

No infrared transmitter

Japanese phones come with a phone to phone infrared transmitter to “beam” your vcard (address, phone number, photo, profile or other private details) to another phone. These are standard and work across any carrier, any make, brand or generation of Japanese phone.

Not having an infrared transmitter means you’ll never get the phone number or email address of a potential pick-up at a bar: Congratulations, you’ve effectively ostracised yourself from the dating circuit.

No strap loop hole

This may seem ridiculous, but there is no place for a strap on the iPhone. In Japan, every phone has a place for a strap, and some people have straps that weigh more than the phone itself! Remember that the more fashion conscious tend to have more straps, so it’s ironic that the iPhone, a tech-fashion icon doesn’t have one.

No strap? No deal!

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