Smartphones Stir Up Japan's Mobile Market
In Japan, phones and PDAs are viewed within the industry as separate vertical markets. DoCoMo and other carriers – who control the development and sale of cellular devices – have not seen fit to create a hybrid phone/PDA. Is it fear of loss of control over the subscriber billing relationship? Fear of allowing foreign makers – like Nokia – into the market? Is it the lack of Japanese third-party developers who have worked with overseas platforms (like Symbian)? Today’s program looks at a company helping to stir up a market that needs some stirring.
Comments from Wireless Watch Japan Editor-in-Chief Daniel Scuka:
One would think that Japan, the land of gadgets that amaze and astound, would boast a full range of wireless and wireless-enabled devices, including cell phones, PDAs, smartphones, pagers, micro-notebook PCs, etc. Well, that’s essentially true – Japanese electronics makers are versatile if nothing else. But, surprisingly, this country lacks a true ‘smart phone’ or phone-PDA combo device. “There’s nothing like the Communicator [in the Japan market] with a full keyboard and a full-width color screen,” says Richard Northcott, CEO of Tokyo-based Enfour Group.
There are Japanese PDAs (Zaurus, Clie, etc.) into which you can insert a wireless PHS data card, but no device with the phone part built in. In this regards, overseas makers have proven to be much more elegant in their thinking, and Nokia’s Communicator, as Northcott mentions, is an example of a first-generation smartphone that provides a full keyboard and wide screen – and Japan just doesn’t compete.
Northcott’s company, Tokyo-based Enfour Group, has just finished creating the localized version of the Japanese-language input method editor (IME) for the Communicator, allowing native speakers to input and handle Japanese characters on the Communicator’s English-language Symbian OS.
Note this is not a full localization of the Communicator’s software, but the Japanese IME does allow the device to at least be sold and, as Richard points out, be used as a consumer and third-party developer test bed. Also, sadly, the phone part – a GSM-based module – still only works outside Japan.
(Ironically, if you sign-up for a Vodafone Global Standard account here and get a USIM card, one could presumably take this sold-in-Japan device with your sold-in-Japan USIM card and make calls outside Japan!)
So the Japanese-enabled Communicator is still more of a test bed – but it will allow Japanese developers to start thinking about creating applications for more than just i-mode phones or Sony Clie PDAs.
That there are no smartphone devices here speaks volumes about Japan’s connection – or lack thereof – to global wireless markets.
In Japan, phones and PDAs are viewed within the industry (and, I would argue, by the consumers who buy them) as separate vertical markets. They only meet at the very top, where the consumer can, on her own time, purchase a PHS data card (and register a mandatory account with a PHS carrier like DoCoMo or DDI Pocket) and then use it in their PDA’s Compact Flash slot.
But DoCoMo and other carriers – who control the development and sale of cellular devices – have not seen fit to create a hybrid phone/PDA. Is it fear of loss of control over the subscriber billing relationship? Fear of allowing foreign makers – like Nokia (who produce pretty darn good little smartphones) – into the market? Is it the lack of Japanese third-party developers who have worked with overseas platforms (like Symbian) to create useful apps for smartphones for sale here?
I’m not sure – it may be a combination of all these.
But I do know that Northcott’s company is helping to stir up the market and reconnect Japan to the rest of the world. And that’s a necessary thing.
Note: Today’s program also covers Enfour Group’s updated “Tango Town” series of multilanguage, multicultural mobile Web sites, initially deployed on J-Phone’s J-Sky, recently available on NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode, and rumored to be coming soon on KDDI’s EZweb.