Japan’s Mobile Market is a Galapagos of isolation

I have been to Tokyo over 20 times, but haven’t gone recently.  One of my ex-Apple coworkers is currently in Tokyo working for another high tech company, and it reminds of how the Japanese Mobile Market is different.

The NYTimes has a good perspective (written by a Japanese native) on why the Japanese Mobile Market is isolatee like the Galapagos island.

Why Japan’s Cellphones Haven’t Gone Global

Robert Gilhooly/Bloomberg News

Japanese cellphone makers want to expand, but their clever handsets do not work on other networks.


Published: July 19, 2009

TOKYO — At first glance, Japanese cellphones are a gadget lover’s dream: ready for Internet and e-mail, they double as credit cards, boarding passes and even body-fat calculators.

Enlarge This Image

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Competition is fierce in the relatively small Japanese cellphone market, with eight manufacturers.

Enlarge This Image

Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Takeshi Natsuno developed a wireless Internet service that caught on in Japan.

Readers' Comments
Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

But it is hard to find anyone in Chicago or London using a Japanese phone like a Panasonic, a Sharp or an NEC. Despite years of dabbling in overseas markets, Japan’s handset makers have little presence beyond the country’s shores.

“Japan is years ahead in any innovation. But it hasn’t been able to get business out of it,” said Gerhard Fasol, president of the Tokyo-based IT consulting firm, Eurotechnology Japan.

The point about the Galapagos island is made here.

The Japanese have a name for their problem: Galápagos syndrome.

Japan’s cellphones are like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands — fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins — explains Takeshi Natsuno, who teaches at Tokyo’s Keio University.

The article makes a final point on the issue of SW vs. HW innovation and the role of online app services from data centers.

Meanwhile, Japanese developers are jealous of the runaway global popularity of the AppleiPhone and App Store, which have pushed the American and European cellphone industry away from its obsession with hardware specifications to software. “This is the kind of phone I wanted to make,” Mr. Natsuno said, playing with his own iPhone 3G.

The conflict between Japan’s advanced hardware and its primitive software has contributed to some confusion over whether the Japanese find the iPhone cutting edge or boring. One analyst said they just aren’t used to handsets that connect to a computer.

The forum Mr. Natsuno convened to address Galápagos syndrome has come up with a series of recommendations: Japan’s handset makers must 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.

“It’s not too late for Japan’s cellphone industry to look overseas,” said Tetsuro Tsusaka, a telecom analyst at Barclays Capital Japan. “Besides, most phones outside the Galápagos are just so basic.”

BTW, my friend in Tokyo is not one I would ask for his personal experience as he doesn’t own a cell phone even when he is in the US.  But, he works on mobile internet applications, so he has an interesting view developing for the Japanese market.