iPhone in Japan - I Am Satisfied

Despite sensationalist, hit-whoring and inane articles like this embarrassing one in Wired [1], as a long-term resident of Japan and Japanese cell-phone user, I think my iPhone is great in many ways. Unless you try to compare it feature-by-feature to Japanese cell phones, that is, but the iPhone is a paradigm shift, typical of many we see from Apple. It’s just not the same sort of device, and should not really be compared to Japanese cellphones.

Japanese cell phones are indeed “cutting edge”, sure, but a lot of the stuff on them is gimmicky and used infrequently if at all. I hear mention of “WanSeg” TV, but talk about an unpleasant user experience. Watching TV was so confusing on my KDDI AU phone, that I gave up, even after reading the thick manual (yes, I read Japanese). Apple spends great gobs of time and money to make sure their Apps are not like that, though. Apple products are of course not without their problems, but, they’re pretty easy to use. That’s a huge accomplishment that the feature-hoarders making Japanese cell phones have not understood. Are you listening, Panasonic, Kyocera, NEC, Sharp?

People complain that the iPhone software and hardware is proprietary, but you gotta be kidding me. Japanese cell phones are all about proprietary, in my opinion, and here’s a sample of my gripes over the years:

  1. Different interface per maker. Kyocera is different from Sony is different from Sharp.
  2. New software to sync with Outlook every time you buy a new phone and limited options to sync with Apple OS X Address Book. Different data format per phone, which makes migrations hard.
  3. Special formats required for built-in music players, especially Sony. What a chore to get mp3’s onto a Sony for playback!
  4. Number portability was not an option until fairly recently. Now, at least you can keep your number from company to company, for a monthly fee.
  5. Limited standards adoption, for example in that only a proprietary bluetooth headset can be used with the device.
  6. Incredibly poor English language text entry handling. My last AU phone from Sony could not enter a space in certain modes and a carriage return in others!
  7. Limited ability to switch interface into English. Sony allows this, but my Sharp from a year before did not, for instance.

Apple’s user interfaces are truly high quality compared to those of Japanese cellphones, but there are indeed a number of aspects about the iPhone which would pose a barrier to adoption, especially for a person very used to the Japanese cellphone ways or modes. No infrared data or personal information exchange, none of the Japan-only stuff like Suica (train pass) or “wallet” function (auto-debit credit card), no hook for a strap, and a different text entry method are some of the things that feel like obstacles.

Regarding these, though, I can exchange data by email or VCard without trouble from my Mac due to the built-in sync to my Mac apps, or, by using an app to do it, I don’t want my wallet on my phone because I feel it’s a risk so I have never enabled that, I have a case with a strap hook, and the text entry is wildly better, from my perspective, than that on cellphones. Even the TV thing, you can get a frankly unattractive and sort of knobby adapter to hook onto your iPhone to enable WanSeg. Oh, and the expense, well, you’re indeed paying a premium, but it’s still less than BlackBerry. The device is rather expensive but the data plan monthly is typical for “all you can use” programs here in Japan, running about 45 dollars per month.

On the iPhone upside, well, I mentioned the stellar interface which is multi-lingual. Japanese smartphones feel cheap in your hands comparably. There are some pretty usable apps (app store problems with regard to developer submissions aside) for it for a reasonable price and for apps that you just won’t get for a Japanese cellphone. Music-wise, it’s the same iPod flexibility we have enjoyed for years on iPod. Very easy to ingest a CD I own into the iTunes library and get it to play. Safari mobile is smooth. Switching between 3G and WiFi is pretty easy and smooth. We also get syncing I never had with a Japanese cell - for mail, calendar, contacts.

From a western perspective, and after 21 years here, I have the opinion that Japanese are not so good at synthesis but much better at analysis. They are quite content to grouse about the state of something (the analysis bit) rather than figuring out how to fix it (the synthesis bit) and without simply copying. If a thought leader explains why a thing is great, though, the Japanese are pretty willing to make that jump. Since Softbank, the only iPhone carrier, is seemingly always being announced as “nearly bankrupt” I am more concerned about Softbank going belly-up than I am about Japanese peoples’ ability to figure out why the iPhone is a great device to own.

[1] _In response to which there were a large number of comments, some even worth reading, and blog posts here by Mr. Daiji Hirata and here by Mr. Nobuyuki Hayashi. If all Wired’s stuff is this poorly done, remind me never to believe anything they have on their site again. _

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—by Rick Cogley