Some people think the iPhone is struggling in Japan. I never thought it would take off in epic proportions like the US because even Japanese kids have cell phones that classify as smart phones by global standards and it’s been like this for close to a decade. The things missing from the iPhone are not only TV reception (yes, this is a standard feature) or electronic wallets (as in real money charged and yet another standard feature), you can’t browse the majority of “keitai” or cell phone only websites in Japan with an iPhone because Mobile Safari gets treated like a PC and rightly so because it is. Although the iPhone did add emoji/emoticon support there is still no intra-carrier compatibility so the support is limited.
For a really good analysis you can read Nobi Hayashi’s excellent summary of the situation:
nobilog returns: My view of how iPhone is doing in Japan by Nobi (Nobuyuki Hayashi)
Although Apple nor Softbank releases the real number of shipment, today, it is strongly believed that they have shipped more than 300,000 and possibly near 400,000 units in Japan.
Interestingly, despite the negative press, Sankei Shimbun did release one of the most successful iPhone app in Japan after that article in which you can read the full Sankei Shimbun newspaper.
Also on January 11th, 2009 they looked back how iPhone did in the first six month and seem to have concluded it wasn’t that bad after all; I was in San Francisco that day and didn’t get to read the article but I was interviewed for the article.
Now let’s talk if 400,000 (or 300,000) is a strong or weak number.
I think this is not at all a weak number especially if you are talking about 2008.
In December 2007, accumulated number of cellphones in Japan surpassed 100,000,000. Today, more than 90% of Japanese adults have one or more cell phones. And some analyst have started warning the slow down of mobile phone sales in Japan.
Quite simply the iPhone isn’t a keitai (Japanese for cell phone) just as Japanese baseball isn’t baseball. The rules are the same and so are the origins but there’s a fundamental difference in the context. Despite my misgivings about the iPhone performing well in Japan, I was definitely waiting in line early morning the day it went on sale to Japan. I ditched my cell carrier of close to a decade to make the transition and I’ve never looked back. It was one of the best decisions I made. I remember waiting in the long line at the electronic store that sold the iphones. People were lined up in a long winding queue. Most of the people and by that I mean 95% at least, were men in their 30s or above. There was excitement in the air and the place was bustling with enthusiasm and strangers talking to each other. Then the storm passed just as quick as it came. It only took a couple months for the iPhones to get fully stocked despite coming to the Japanese market 1 year late and building all that anticipation. People with enough money simply used the iPhone as a PDA with phone capabilities and hung on to their old cell phones for all the important stuff.
However, I always felt that the iPhone would do well for the enterprise market and the older crowd (kind of ironic considering how hip the iPhone is considered everywhere else). It’s really not a matter of technology or aesthetics when it comes to the iPhone’s lack of true popularity in Japan. It’s more the role of keitais as social appliances in Japan. Younger Japanese mostly use their keitai for social networking sites as well as a large portion of internet usage. In fact, there are many young girls who don’t have a home PC or even an internet connection because their keitai suffices for most things.
For business people, stuff like emoji and not being able to access social networking site is not an issue. Not having an electronic wallet or TV aren’t really deal breakers either. Being able to check your email on the go, browse the internet, even read documents like word, excel, and pdfs while out and about are major pluses. Organizations that adopt the iPhone can even develop their own custom applications to sweeten the deal even more.