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I Just got back from a week or so in Hong Kong and while following some recent announcements started thinking about the overall state of mobile technology in Japan. Over the years I have had the chance to watch the development of mobile information platforms in this country, from the pokebell to the iPhone, and I have to say I am both disappointed and surprised at the current state and direction.

Throughout the late 80’s and 90’s Japan always seemed to be one step ahead. While cellular devices in the US were still square brick-like devices owned by pompous businessmen and zealous real estate agents, Japanese elementary school students all seemed to carry pagers. The entire Japanese culture seemed to embrace mobile technology. So much, in fact, there were news stories covering fears that people would lose the ability to communicate directly and someday everyone would be locked into technological cocoons.

Ah, those were the days.

So what happened? In the end, it appears that it was just a consumer based fad. A fad that lasted over a decade, but one that in recent years has certainly lost its luster. Cellphones, while now deeply ingrained into the society, have appeared to lose it’s luster and are no longer that interesting. An impartial view of mobile technology will show that innovation has continued in Japan. Camera-phones, wallet phones, GPS phones all debuted into the mass public in Japan. But I am far from impartial. In relative terms, Japan went from being the envy of mobile tech geeks around the globe to a page 3 story when Softbank summons overnight queues for the latest Apple import. It used to be whenever I left Japan, people would crowd to see my latest Docomo cellphone. Now, when I come back to Japan, people crowd to see my latest grey-market acquisition from Mong-kok. Japanese carriers now spit out with sickening regularity the same old thing (but this time is has Swarovski crystals and the color of the season is Puce!), while the rest of the world is truly started to push the envelope.

So who is to blame?

I blame everyone (except myself of course). I blame the carriers for ruthlessly sticking to an outdated procurement model that stifles creativity in manufacturers and pushes an outdated profit model to the expense of the consumer. I blame consumers for continuing to buy into this corrupted model and embracing the old and familiar while still buying new handsets at a mind-numbing pace (Thank God I got puce before it sold out!). I blame government regulators for protecting this antiquated model and stifling competition from abroad, isolating and eventually rendering Japanese manufacturers non-competitive. So now that I have doled out blame for about 1/10th of the problem, here’s my thoughts on what is really wrong in Japan.

In general, the state of Information Technology in Japan is a joke. Not an insightful, edgy quip from Jon Stewart joke, more like a slightly racist/sexist, outdated, and decidedly unfunny joke also by Jon Stewart, when nobody laughs. It’s like being in an elevator when someone farts… and then the power goes out. You are not sure if the tears are from the unfair nature of the situation or just the fumes. Yes. Things are that bad.

Large companies in Japan view IT with something between fear and contempt. Only recently has the acronym IT started to replace the die-hard OA from the office lexicon. OA-Office Appliances implies how Japanese companies have viewed computers and technology. Like something between a copy machine and a tea machine. As if you can order a corporate infrastructure from a Staples catalog. In recent years we have seen scandals in the Japanese news highlighting blunders in corporate IT naiveté. Bank system crashes, stock market freezes, and privacy leaks one could drive an Aegis class cruiser through.

Within Asia, Japan was very early into the technology infrastructure game. But that was over a decade ago, and now IT spending growth in Asia is vastly outpacing Japan’s outdated systems. Taking into account the increased ROI of more modern and efficient systems, The rest of Asia will soon vastly outperform Japan in infrastructure and technology. But how did this effect mobile technology?

In the US and Europe, mobile technology was very much a top-down development. Pagers, cellphones, and eventually SmartPhones all started out as expensive toys no one would buy unless they needed it or were offered one for work. Then as costs started to drop and the image of mobile technology became more fashionable regular consumers wanted to join the game. Nowadays gadget blogs are gaining in popularity and are packed with snapshots of the latest celebrity with their top of the line SmartPhones. But the trend for development was the same. FIrst high end companies invested, paying a huge premium for the best technology and fastest access to information. Then, the whole thing was repackaged for the consumer. In Japan, this approach was largely a failure. Early attempts such as the Sharp Zaurus were largely ignored by corporations. Isolation of the Japanese telecom market reduced competitiveness and innovation keeping the ubiquitous BlackBerry from Japanese shores for nearly a decade. Pitiful investment in software development by corporations pushed all the talent in Japan to video game developers (not that I am complaining about that one). The end result is that not only has Japan finally been surpassed by the global market, it is now in no shape to be a serious contender going forward.

So what does the future hold?

As the saying goes, “It is always darkest before you are halfway between sunset and sunrise.” or something like that. Yes. Things are quite backward and the days of Japanese mobile tech envy are likely behind us for quite a while, but that is not to say that there is no hope. While corporations still seem as clueless as ever, the surge in technology abroad is likely to have some effect in isolationist Japan. Global demand for the iPhone prompted Masayoshi Son to bring the iPhone to Japan, and even the marketing monkeys at DoCoMo were able to launch a BlackBerry (of sorts). Companies like eMobile and Willcom are pushing brilliant new communications products at very reasonable prices that have been quite a hit among small niche markets. But this pace will never see Japan as a leader in technology again. To do that we will need to see a significant shift within Japan Inc.

This is my first post to Mobile in Japan. Sorry that is turned into such a long and boring rant, and I promise future points will be both shorter and more interesting.

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