Q&A: What’s the Japanese equivalent of [enter foreign web service here]?

Serkan Toto does a great roundup of Japanese websites analogous to popular American and European sites. There are even a few on the list that I didn’t know about. Last April I analyzed the top 100 sites accessed in Japan and tried to point out gaps in the Japanese web that could be filled by enterprising foreigners. I think music is a gaping hole in the Japanese net. Serkan confirms this when he mentions that the Japanese equivalent of last.fm is Mixi Music which “will be turned off soon.”

However, methinks that this hole is not due to a lack of domestic web programming talent, but the iron fist of JASRAC. Not even Steve Jobs can get these people on his side!

ADDENDUM: Apparently mixi music is closing due to lack of user growth.. Did its catalog warrant many users?

Q&A: What’s the Japanese equivalent of [enter foreign web service here]?

the problem of software development in Japan

@gen Kanai reacts to Tabuchi’s NYT article by discussing how the Galapagos problem applies to software development in Japan. I love how he picks apart Takeshi Natsuno’s solution to “focus more on software and must be more aggressive in hiring foreign talent, and the country’s cellphone carriers must also set their sights overseas.”

The “foreign talent” line smacks of the cosmetic 国際化 (kokusaika = internationalization) policies that have been tried and failed by so many Japanese firms. To quote Gen, “this is a hollow solution — toothless.”

the problem of software development in Japan

Japanese cellphones may be clever, but that doesn’t make them smart

Hiroko Tabuchi’s NYT article on Why Japan’s Cellphones Haven’t Gone Global has been making the rounds. It is a good article, but she makes one unfortunate mistake: she uses that amorphous term “smartphone” to describe Japanese cellphones. Luckily, she only does it once in the whole article, but I fear the damage has been done. See the quote below:

Japan has 100 million users of advanced third-generation smartphones, twice the number used in the United States, a much larger market. Many Japanese rely on their phones, not a PC, for Internet access.

In a country of around 128 million people that puts smartphone market penetration at nearly 80 percent. If that is so, why do Blackberry, the iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile phones have such tiny marketshare here? What is the most dominant phone OS in Japan and why haven’t people in the West heard of it?

The answer is because Japanese cellphones are not smartphones.

Domestic Japanese handsets do have tons of amazing features, but by and large “smartphone” is a new concept here. The problem lies in definition: A smartphone is used as an extension of a computer. Japanese keitai culture is completely detached from computers. Without realizing it, I think Tabuchi captured this nuance in her article:

One analyst said [Japanese] just aren’t used to handsets that connect to a computer.

Last year, after numerous complaints, SoftBank had to issue warnings to new purchasers of the iPhone that a computer was required for the operation of the iPhone. “A computer to use a phone?” was a typical, confused reaction (and usually the sign of a lost sale). To contrast this idea, many photo printers in Japan allow people to print wirelessly directly from the camera applications on their phone. No need to connect your phone to your computer at all.

Other than not connecting to computers, there are other reasons why Japanese cellphones are not smartphones, but confuse foreign analysts anyway.

Japanese cellphones have internet access to fast 3G networks. Though it is mostly to a hobbled mobile internet leftover from the days of i-mode, when bandwidth was too small to allow access to what people in Japan call “PC sites”, i.e. the regular Internet.

Japanese cellphones can do email. But that is a result of Japan’s kludgy SMS system which does not allow texting between different carriers (which looks to end next year). Furthermore, when you hear “email capable” you might think you can set up POP or IMAP or Exchange accounts on your phone. Not the case with Japanese cellphones.

The divide between internet and email for computers versus internet and email for cellphones is sharp in Japan. Smartphones are a unifying technology, giving you the power of a computer in your pocket. This should be particularly disruptive in the Japanese market. Which brings me to my final difference between Japanese cellphones and smartphones: applications. Other than BREW-based games, no apps can be added to the phone like on the Symbian, Android or iPhone OSes.

A smartphone is a foreign concept in Japan. I think this is the underlying reason for the Japanese market confusion over the iPhone. For the Japanese, this is a wholly unfamiliar class of phone. By this definition I would not be surprised if smartphone penetration in Japan is found to be somewhere around the 5% mark. With the introduction of the Blackberry and Android phones following the iPhone’s release last year, I hope to see this marketshare increase. But Japan’s keitai culture is entrenched, and it will be an uphill battle.

All or nothing

Sad but true. I would wager that in Japan the IE percentage is even sharper for similar reasons. Individuals can be persuaded to upgrade through browser-sniffing dialogs and whatnot. Companies, on the other hand, need a bigger push. Granted, it takes more than a couple of clicks for an IT department to upgrade a browser across their entire network. But it is worth it for both productivity and morale. However, I fear it will take web-wide IE prohibition to get them off their asses. Either that or continue with the substandard, half-assed system we have now.

All or nothing

Evolutionary Perspectives featuring Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Douglas Adams

I finally got around to listening to this three hour marathon of brilliance — Darwinism in biology, philosophy, anthropological history, cognitive science and its influence on a hilarious lay-scifi writer.

For me this panel was full of personal heroes. I have been a huge fan of Douglas Adams and his work for years. I did my undergrad work in theoretical linguistics where I first became acquainted with Steven Pinker who hugely influences on my own views of the brain and psychology. My graduate work in political philosophy lead me to Richard Dawkins, who finally convinced me of my own atheism. I now consider myself part of his army.

Through Dawkins and the Four Horsemen (which includes another personal hero: Christopher Hitchens) I became familiar with Dan Dennett, a well respected philosopher whose work I have yet to read. As for Jared Diamond, though I have seen his television series (Guns, Germs and Steel) two of his unread books are still sitting in my anti-library.

All of these men have amazing achievements to their names, and their speeches and interaction are extremely stimulating. Highly recommended viewing.

Evolutionary Perspectives featuring Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Douglas Adams