Something I noticed when setting up a Twitter account (yes, I’m an absurdly late adopter, especially when I’ve known about it since around 2006) is that Twitter offers mobile text messaging in multiple countries…but not Japan. I’m pretty sure that this is related to the fact that it took until June of this year to finally implement cross-carrier SMS messaging in Japan, after two years of negotiations between the primary parties.
It’s consistently amusing that the outside world thinks of Japan as a country where everyone uses high technology and that technology is advanced compared to the rest of the world. There are some things that Japan implements first, but more often than not those technologies subsequently stagnate, become inbred, and are quickly overtaken in capability by externally developed standards.
Even before the iPhone came out, the previously advanced-looking Japanese handsets were starting to look unimpressive compared to many of the European and American handsets, and four years later there’s still nothing made in Japan that is in the same class as the iPhone. Most of the new smartphone lines use Google’s Android OS, not a Japanese OS, and virtually all of the smartphone handset makers are non-Japanese. Normally, Japanese shun Korean-made products, but the Samsung Galaxy line has been selling quite well. And we know there’s no similarity between Samsung and Apple products. None at all.
The selling points of feature handsets are proprietary technologies or bullet-point items that are torture to use in the real world. My wife’s phone came out a bit after the iPhone 3GS. It features integrated Suica (a Japan-only RFID-based cashless payment system) and a 10.1 megapixel camera that blows the 3 megapixel iPhone camera away on specs. Except that it takes literally several seconds to focus on a stationary subject, has an unpredictable shutter with a delay of at least a half-second or more, is completely incapable of taking photos of a moving subject with any kind of consistency, and the in-camera digital filters and JPEG compression introduce significant artifacts despite the high image quality supposedly offered by the better camera. Looking at an image taken with my iPhone compared to her mobile, it’s obvious that she has a better camera, but the images look worse most of the time.
These might be things that could be fixed with a firmware update, but in practice there are never any updates for feature phones unless there’s something catastrophically wrong with the original firmware. So my technically inferior camera is capable of taking better snapshots of things you see out and about most of the time, while my wife’s can be better for taking pictures of things that sit still and do nothing, like food or decorative objects, which are the common subjects for the young female users who are the best market for new handset sales in Japan.
Japan is years behind in the smartphone market, and it won’t be too long before the smartphone market is the market. That day might already be here. In the US, the 8 GB iPhone 3GS is being offered for free on AT&T with a standard two-year contract, and here in Japan the iPhone 4 is being advertised as being offered for ¥0 with a 26 month contract. While the data plans are more expensive than a standard voice and limited messaging plan, they’re not unbelievably expensive, and depending on usage patterns might be cheaper since data plans are effectively flat-rate.