Why Japanese smartphones never went global

Despite being ahead of the technology curve, Japanese smart phones never saw a global release even in key markets such as the U.S. and Europe.

Once the envy of overseas markets, Japanese mobile phones are increasingly becoming a rarity in the coutry due to the popularity of smartphones such as the Apple iPhone

Once the envy of overseas markets, Japanese mobile phones are increasingly becoming a rarity in the coutry due to the popularity of smartphones such as the Apple iPhone

For the longest time, Japan reigned supreme when it came to the latest technology and gadgets. This high level on innovation and ingenuity enabled several Japanese vendors to quickly make a name for themselves and soon expand to overseas markets. As manufacturing methods and logistics improved over the decades, the world’s population got their hands on the latest VCRs, televisions and video game devices that were “made in Japan". But one technology that was notably absent in Japan’s technology boom in overseas markets was the mobile phone.

While consumers in the West were content with their humble Nokia handsets through the 90s and the early 00s, any visitor to Japan would have been surprised and impressed by the sheer advancement and variety of mobile phone technology available in the island nation. Large colour screens, Internet access, email support – all standard on Japanese mobile phones years before the iPhone and the smartphone revolution began. But while these advanced mobile phones enjoyed growing success in Japan, to the extent where the handsets would receive a minor hardware refresh for every season of the year, this phenomenon was isolated to Japan.

The large size of the Japanese consumer market is what NTT Australia managing director and CEO, Yoshimasa Hashimoto, believes enabled the high level of growth and innovation in it. In particular, he highlights the introduction of i-Mode, NTT DoCoMo's mobile internet service in Japan, in 1999 as the key growth driver in the early 00s. “i-Mode enabled phone users to use a lot of applications such as net banking, online payment and shopping, customised ring tones using popular music, as well as e-mails, text messages, and the other prevailing features which currently smartphones can provide,” Hashimoto said. He also points to the fact that the development of mobile phone technology received heavy investment from the three major telcos in Japan: NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and Softbank (formerly Vodafone Japan).

In addition to the large population of more than 125 million, disposable income is also high, which IDC analyst of mobile research in Japan, Michito Kimura, feels led to Japan becoming a very “gadget loving country.” As such, Japanese consumers have tended to be very open to new mobile technologies. “Japanese technology vendors have been very good at making their devices smaller and lighter through clamshell and slider designs, as well as adding new features such as better cameras,” he said. “The success of Japanese mobile phones was also driven by the i-Mode Internet service and Japan-centric software content available through it, such as games and comics.”

While the large consumer technology players such as Panasonic, Sharp and Sony have a long and successful history of releasing mobile phones in Japan, they never really took the next step and had their handsets sold overseas through their existing distributor network, leaving many industry pundits and consumers wondering why. Hashimoto attributes this to the Japanese market being big enough for the vendors to keep their business profi table without needing to look outside for further revenue. “More importantly, the development of technology was driven by the three major telco operators whose business was mainly domestic in Japan,” he said.

While multinational vendors may have the means to market and sell their products overseas, Kimura feels the problem was that the Japanese mobile market went down its own customised road, which over time resulted in a very unique environment. “Instead of adopting standard 3G specifi cations, Japanese telcos have adopted their own 3G specifi cations for both networks and handsets,” he said. “3G in Japan initially started off using the standard specifications, but over time the 3G infrastructure changed to become Japan-centric and ultimately different from what it was worldwide.’ Kimura feels that Japanese handsets would have faced an uphill battle overseas despite their high technology. “Because Japanese handsets have enjoyed success domestically, vendors became very focused on meeting the tastes of domestic users,” he said. “Thus, the features that are unique to Japanese phones may ultimately not appeal to overseas consumers.”

Though Kimura does not doubt that Japanese vendors wanted to do business outside of Japan, the investment needed to properly market and localise the handsets overseas ultimately proved too daunting for most manufactures. While Japan may have been content to rest on its laurels and focus exclusively on the Japanese market, this has meant other large vendors in Asia have picked up the slack. “Countries such as Korea have been a bit more proactive about pursing markets outside of their own domestic one,” Kimura said. “Korean vendors such as LG have already marketed their products overseas in order to expand their market reach beyond their shores.”

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.
Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?