When America's AT&T lost it's exclusive contract on Apple's iPhone, a great deal of ink and pixels were spilled by journalists and bloggers alike. This signaled the end of bad service, bad reception, and exorbitant fees in some people's mind. While much of what people had expected after Verizon started selling the phone turned out to be mostly accurate1, customers here in Japan could only look on and sigh. Similar to our American counterparts, people in Japan have been limited to a single carrier if they wanted a hassle-free way to use the iPhone. Luckily, this will be less of a problem going forward as Japan's second-largest carrier, Au, will begin carrying the next generation iPhone later this year or early next2. Oddly enough, this has Japanese handset makers worrying.
A recent Asahi Shinbun article reports that cell phone manufacturers here are bracing for a drop in sales once Au begins carrying Apple's darling. One vague source goes so far as to say "it's like the whole classroom is in a stir because a sensational transfer student is coming. We have to brace ourselves for the impact, to a certain extent."
While it's true that iPhone's continue to sales in Japan have consistently remained strong at SoftBank3, I can't believe that cell phone manufacturers here are truly worried about the iPhone being sold on Au. If they really are concerned, then none of them have any reason to be in business. Manufacturers in Japan have had two years to prepare for the eventuality that the iPhone would be sold on other carriers, and well over three years to prepare a compelling alternative to Apple's portable communications device. Surely they have something in the works ... right?
Three Years and Still Nothing
Unfortunately, Japanese handset manufacturers are in no better a position today than they were five years ago when it comes to offering a device that can truly stand a chance against a 16 month old iPhone4 or even the 6 month old Samsung Galaxy S II. I'll even go so far as to say that no Japanese-made cell phone can even stand a chance against the 30 month old iPhone 3GS. This isn't because device engineers here are inferior in any way to the highly skilled technical geniuses at Apple, Samsung, or even Nokia. In fact, I'd be willing to say that the hardware is not really the problem at all4. Instead, the problem is with purpose.
I've had the opportunity to speak to a few cell phone designers in my time here and the number one issue I heard when it comes to the development of a cell phone is a lack of purpose for the devices that are created. Why should customers buy Phone A over Phone B? What is it about a particular competing device that people like? If the iPhone is so popular, what makes it so and how can people (particularly those in the domestic market) be sold on a Japanese design?
Most cell phone designers never get an answer to these simple questions, and asking people above them why anyone should care about a slightly modified device that's available in 16 different colors is an absolute no-no. If Japanese manufacturers are really worried about the iPhone being sold on Au, they have nobody to blame but themselves.
Use the Whole Ass
Manufacturers such as Sharp, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Sony made a half-ass attempt to compete with Apple by adopting Android and selling it with a heavily customized theme that rarely worked as advertised. These themes were often slow, lacked intuitiveness, consistency, and clashed with the designs of just about every piece of software a person might install. To make matters worse, the phones suffer from horrendous battery life. A Japanese smart phone cannot compete with the cheapest Taiwanese smart phone when it comes to operational life. This should be an embarrassment to every company as they all have dedicated battery divisions. If nothing else, Japanese cell phones should be far superior in battery life for this very reason, but they're not.
Year after year we see manufacturers release new phones with marginal hardware improvements and poorly rationalized software. In the case of smart phones, we see a solid Android foundation as the base and a layer or three of crap on top that gets in the way of people actually enjoying the device. One thing that I have rarely ever heard a person say when using a Japanese smart phone running Android is how responsive and simple the most common functions are. When playing with a friend's brand new Fujitsu Regza smart phone, I discovered that sending an email to somebody in the contact list took a total of 9 menus and 10 clicks. Ten clicks! For something that people do so often in Japan that dedicated buttons could be introduced just to email specific people, you'd think this would be one of the easier activities to do.
People have said that Sony's skin is usable, but I've yet to meet someone who hasn't rooted their Sony Ericsson phone to put stock Android on the device in the first six months. Sharp is supposed to have the most amazing screens but very few people seem to use this for watching videos as the battery can't make it through a two hour movie and still provide enough life to act as a phone for the rest of the day. Toshiba? Where to begin with these guys ...
At the end of the day the problem is that Japanese manufacturers are rushing products out the door for an artificially created seasonal release schedule which means items people typically use for at least two years are shipped with incomplete software that sort of does what it's supposed to do without crashing an exorbitant number of times. Updates are few and far between, if they're done at all. This needs to stop. Manufacturers can't expect customers to be happy with half-assed attempts to compete with the iPhone. Manufacturers need to use their whole ass.
Make Android Awesome
Almost every smart phone produced by Japanese handset makers uses Android5, which means half of the puzzle is already complete. What are the most common things people do on their smart phones in Japan? Email, web surfing, social media, NFC payments, games, and (sometimes) making phone calls. These are the areas that need to be attacked with a vengeance, and here's how you do it:
Email needs to be idiot proof. No more than 4 taps, and I should be in the middle of writing an email to anyone in my contact list. The email client in stock Android is decent enough, but there's always room for improvement.
Web surfing is something people do quite a bit of, and few people seem to enjoy the default browser. So why not make a new one or, better yet, put Opera Mobile on every device and make it default. People shouldn't have to think about a browser that can crash under regular circumstances ... ever. If Chrome is ever put out on Android, then manufacturers can think about using that instead of the best mobile browser out there.
Social media is catching on, but there isn't really anything that phone manufacturers can do here aside from ensure the official applications are pre-installed. Naturally, these applications should be uninstallable, as not everyone will use every social network out there.
NFC payments are easy enough, in that people should have the ability to recharge their balance from anywhere right on the phone. Balance running low? Put 5,000円 on there from your credit card without breaking a sweat. Tap, tap, tap. Done. I don't know how many times I've heard people complain about this problem after getting on the bus or train and finding out they don't have enough to pay for the transit.
Games and video can be improved by offering better batteries or, better yet, some incredible power-saving functionality. Why should consumers need to think about how many things are running in the background? Software can 'learn' our habits, favorite programs, and the like, then make decisions accordingly.
Phone calls? Well ... this is something I've never done on an Android-powered device. I don't know if there's any room for improvement, but it should also be as painless as possible.
In each of these cases a team of talented developers could sit down, work out the most common complaints and issues for each of these problems, and work out a solution that would be beneficial for everyone. From here manufacturers will be able to sell their devices as simpler, more convenient smart phones with the Japanese market in mind ... something that Apple can't offer with their world-view and different set of priorities. Once perfected, perhaps developers can turn their talents towards other issues that people report, or work to build custom Android UIs with greater efficiency and intuitiveness. In the world of software, there are always mountains to conquer.
But it requires the use of one's entire ass. Anything less is doomed to failure.