Not “Made in Japan?”

MobileJapan“In order to understand the future of the mobile market in the US, look to Japan.”  This has been the common perception for years, so recent numbers in the smartphone market pose an interesting question.  North America saw a 78.7% increase in smartphone sales between Q2 of 2008 and Q2 of 2007.  During the same period, Japan saw a 24% decrease.

Why is there such a split, and what does it mean?  In the United States, the best and newest features exist primarily on smartphones.  In Japan meanwhile, all handsets have similar features and the primary difference between smartphones and normal mobile phones is the QWERTY keyboard – an input method most Japanese find cumbersome in comparison with the keypads on standard mobiles.  However, the nail in the coffin for the Japanese smartphone market is aesthetics. A look at the site for docomo’s upcoming mobiles demonstrates this point clearly: they are works of art.  All highly functional, choice in the Japanese mobile market is influenced by how the phone works as a fashion accessory.  According to a MyVoice survey, over 70% of respondents considered design an important factor in choosing their mobile phone.

So will the US see the same decline in smartphone sales as standard phones catch up in functionality?


While Japan was ahead of the rest of the world with mobile technology years ago, they’ve built infrastructure around that older technology.  This has led to widespread adoption of technology the US will likely leapfrog over, such as infrared, 2D codes, and WAP.  WAP sites in Japan are actually functional.  In the US, WAP is a disappointing alternative to a full browsing experience.  So when the iPhone was launched in the US, users loved surfing the web through mobile Safari – use of mobile web access was at around 80% for the iPhone and only 15% for conventional phones.  In Japan, the lack of a native WAP client was actually a complaint of many users.  In fact, a recent survey on the topic of “things Japan has too much of,” new cell phone features that don’t get used came in as number two.

If Japan isn’t the future, what is?  Apple has been setting some standards and expectations with the iPhone, and as that spurs changes across the smartphone segment, it’s likely that some of those changes will spill over into standard handsets.  Now that full functional browsers and integrated application storefronts are making an appearance,  WAP sites are an unacceptable compromise.  Currently, smartphones offer the best method of interaction with these elements, especially ones with touch screens.  With this in mind, it is unlikely that the US will see a significant decrease in smartphone sales in the near future.  Especially as prices come down on the current generation of smart devices.