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.

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