How did the iPhone conquer Japan? Part Two


Apple's iPad Air, iPad mini take 6 of Japan's top 10 tablet sales spots

Although this is a continuation of a piece on the iPhone's success in Japan, I thought it appropriate to start with the success of the iPad. Japan has proven to be a fertile market for iDevices despite the counter-indicators. For anyone thinking that the iPhone's success in Japan was a fluke, the success of the iPad should abruptly cut off that line of thinking.

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About those counter-indications, Japan is not the wealthiest nation in the world, or even the second wealthiest. There seems to be a mythology about Japanese wealth that is simply not supported by the facts. No matter how you calculate wealth, Japan is simply not in the top tier. They are doing well for an Asian country. But when it comes to disposable income, they don't really make iPhone money. By that measurement, alone, Japan should be overwhelmingly Android. Their not.

Second, Japan really is a high-tech country with a high-tech culture. They are the capitol of convergence devices. If anyone is going to have a toaster fridge, it will be the Japanese. Counterintuitively, this observation supports the first one. People with less money tend to favor single devices that can serve multiple purposes. It is simply too costly to own multiple devices, each, doing only one thing. There is also the matter of physical space to consider. Japan is small and crowded, with comparatively, cramped domiciles. Having both a TV and a PC puts a strain on available, living space. For these reasons, convergence makes a lot of sense for Japan.

This is why the Japanese have the reputation for wanting devices with lots of features. They also seem to genuinely be gadget nuts. Why not have a phone with a flip-out screwdriver? If you can physically cram circuitry for a TV, NFC mobile payments, an IR remote control, and an AM/FM radio in that thing, why not. This is the exact opposite of Apple's design ethos. Like a soar thumb, the iPhone stood out in the Japanese, handset market as badly crippled. Though it was interesting tech, it didn't have a fraction of the bells and whistles to which the Japanese had grown accustomed. 

Finally, the Japanese were used to spending a lot less money than Apple wanted for the iPhone. Remember, the Japanese are not wealthy. They love their tech, but money is money. The iPhone was a lot more expensive than the budget and mid-range options they were used to purchasing. The nay-sayers were not crazy for doubting the iPhone's future success in the Japanese market. 

No analyst wants to be wrong. Therefore, when facts start pouring in that disprove the analyst predictions, analysts scramble to produce explanations that show why they were actually right, and the facts are wrong. They will do this for a very, long time, and never forgive the product or company that made them look stupid. Long after the iPhone was a proven success despite the odds, analysts kept claiming that it wasn't, hoping to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It didn't work. But why?

I have read a lot on the subject, and have come to the conclusion that no one really knows for sure. Japan is an outlier, and exception to all the well-established rules. The iPhone really should not be successful, there. It gained that success while not being offered on Japans largest carrier, NTT Docomo. That has only recently changed. The iPhone is set to enjoy an even greater amount of success than it already has. My speculation amounts to only a couple of things: In areas that matter to the consumer, quality wins.

Different things matter to different people. Anyone who has ever met me in the flesh, knows that fashion is less than a secondary concern to me. I buy cheap, knock-off, no name, off-the-rack junk, at discount prices. My clothes have to fit and be reasonably comfortable. Beyond that, I could care less. However, when it comes to my personal electronics, it really matters. In part, I use personal electronics to overcome my visual challenge. The choices I make in that area have a material impact on my life. Quality matters!

For some people the quality of their ride is the most important thing. For others, it is the quality of entertainment, resolution, sound. For still others, it is the quality of neighborhood, home, furnishings. We all have areas where we are willing to compromise, and areas where compromise is not an option. Some would never go into debt for a computer, but would spend far too much on their wardrobe. I am just the opposite. 

Culturally speaking, technology matters to the Japanese. This seems to be especially true for mobile devices. They do not just want a smartphone for the sake of utility. They want the best smartphone they can buy, even if it is a little beyond their budgetary comfort. They rely on their gadgets in ways that many do not. They also seem to value experience over mere utility. The iPhone provides a mobile experience that transcends mere utility. Where quality and experience matter, no other products come close. Budget becomes a secondary issue.

I also think it comes down to feature fatigue. Every product is introduced with a core set of features. Over time, more features are added (creep) into the product. Feature creep soon becomes feature fatigue. Microsoft Office is a classic example. Some might argue that Office was already bloated when it was first released. Every year, it just got worse. It got so bad, that people were starting to demand features that were already in the product, it was just so hard to find the basic features people needed due to all the useless creep that had entered the product. Microsoft had to find new ways to surface the important features people needed, while suppressing the creep they didn't. Eventually, Office just became tiresome to use.

When it comes to smartphones, Samsung is the king of feature fatigue. The Galaxy S4 is the standard bearer. I covered the event where Samsung introduced the S4. They fired off so many features, I couldn't keep up with what was supposed to be important. Apparently neither could anyone else. In the hands-on area, we tried to use some of the functionality. But in the end, it all devolved into hundreds of reporters wildly waiving their hands at the phone, trying to make it do something, anything. It was embarrassing. 

Some of Samsung's features make for great ads, but poor, user experiences. Trying to use even a fraction of the features is a bit like trying to use too many big words in a sentence. The extended session of sesquipedalian parlance leaves one quite fatigued. This is especially true when the features do not work well. "Our phone has more features than that phone", became Samsung's main selling point. It is a bit like Pepsi saying that their product tastes sweeter than Coke. It wins the brief taste test, but becomes cloying over time.

The Japanese have been inundated with cloying, feature fatigue for such a long time, that the iPhone must have seemed like a breath of fresh air when it entered the market. Up until that time, no one was trying to sell products on the basis of it providing a better, user experience. The selling points were that the product was cheaper, had more features, and was more gadgety than the competition. The iPhone boasted none of that. And that is precisely what the Japanese market needed at that time. It was the ultimate convergence of the right product, at the right time, in the right place. This can also be said for the iPad. 

David Johnson