Apple iPhone bombs in Japan – a surprise?

What Mobile
March 2, 2009

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to China, Japan and south Korea in my job to look at how things work in Asia. We often look there for an insight into the future, but not everything that comes out in Asia arrives in Europe (and vice versa). In many respects, we’re very different in our wants and needs – so is it a surprise that a phone so popular in Europe and America hasn’t gone down a storm in Japan?

In fact, the iPhone has done so badly that it’s now being offered free on a 2-year contract.

The Japanese are very patriotic, meaning it has always been tough for foreign manufacturers to get a look in, let alone be successful. No wonder, then, that Nokia and Motorola has had limited success but Sony Ericsson has done well – thanks in part to the association with Sony, a Japanese company.

Sony Ericsson also produces handsets specifically for the Japanese market, with mobile TV tuners, larger screens and advanced cameras. These models rarely appear in Europe, and those that do lose many features considered unsuitable.

If a handset from Europe is to be sold there, it would have to be aiming itself at the lowest end of the market to stand much chance of success because the Japanese expect to have access to the latest technology and features. Apple is going for the top-end, but fails because what seems cutting-edge in Cupertino is laughed at in Tokyo. The all-you-can-eat tariff that starts at around US$60 is also far too expensive in an incredibly competitive market.

For Apple to waltz in and think that something without a decent camera, video recording (and calling), mobile TV playback or picture messaging means the company must be naive, or simply believed it wouldn’t matter because of its slick user interface, which has every phone maker in the rest of the world desperate to replicate it. If you venture over to south Korea, you’ll see both Samsung and LG jumping on the bandwagon to mimic the iPhone.

Perhaps Apple though that its brand was strong enough, especially as the Japenese have accepted the Mac and iPod. It seems they were proved wrong (just as Microsoft was with the Xbox), although it will be interesting to see if the price cut will turn things around.

You can find out more about the iPhone’s misfortune in Japan at Wired magazine, while we’ve got a discussion going on our forum, allowing you to share your views.



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