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iPhone failure in Japan? You’ve probably heard about it, it’s all over the news.

Misconceptions

It all started when Wired’s Brian X Chen wrote an article about how the new SoftBank pricing plan, basically offering the iPhone for free with a two-year contract, was a sign on how the Apple handset was a failure here.

The author used well-known Japan tech specialist Nobi Hayashi‘s insights wrongly to actually demonstrate his thesis. It led to a full array of articles demonstrating the extent of Wired faulty misinterpretation of the actual facts.

Obstacles

While the iPhone certainly has had a slower start than in other countries, calling it a failure in Japan is more than far-fetched. The handset remains a very high-end tool even in Japanese standards, doubled with a fashion statement that doesn’t get lost in the country.

Let’s go into some of the reasons explaining a slower start.

Law. Japan has changed mobile sales regulations in 2008. Handsets subsidies by Japanese operators is handled differently and this happened just prior of the iPhone arrival. Customers of this mature market now learn the price they will end up paying. The result? Sales have been slower across the board, moreso with expensive smartphones like the iPhone.

Conservatism. SoftBank is not the number 1 operator in Japan. Does it matter? To a certain extent it does. In a country where people are quite conservative when it comes to switching operators, the iPhone being on one underdog operator did contribute to earlier relatively slower sales in international comparison. This is maybe why the rumor of a future Apple deal with DoCoMo, the leading operator, has been floating for months.

Mobile internet. In Japan, the internet is mostly mobile. While the iPhone allows for a very fresh, almost desktop-like, browsing experience, it is not the way users know the internet on their keitais. Operator portals and mobile-centric pages are the norm. Some even think the addition of a Yahoo! Mobile portal should have been made from the start.

Language. Bear also in mind that Japan is not exactly a English-speaking country. The absence of Japanese apps at the inception was a big barrier, much lowered since then with a burgeoning Japanese for Japanese application galore, from train routes to dictionaries, from Yahoo! to Uniqlo.

Keyboard. If you thought the only complaint about the keyboard was the absence of real keys, think again. The Japanese input inputis somewhat different from what most customers are used in Japan. While it’s mostly just an habit, it still puts some people off.

Email. Email is what SMS is in the rest of the world. Instead of going the usual route and offering the well-known @softbank.ne.jp, SoftBank offered the new @i.softbank.jp address to all its iPhone customers. To this day, it has yet to be widely introduced in mobile services, ranging from weather updates to Polikura (the famous fun instant-photo booths that are all the rage with teenagers and allow for photo forwarding to Japanese mobile emails).
More to the point, emails sent to other operators appeared garbled to many, if not impossible to read at all.

Future

SoftBank and Apple have been willing to do their best for the Japanese market, as efforts like the introduction of e-mail emoticons or the 1-Seg TV adapter have shown.

SoftBank has revised its iPhone pricing twice, adjusting to the needs of the market. This can be seen positively and not obligatorily as a sign of failure. After all, who said AT&T’s price revisions were a sign of failure in the US?

Then again, pricing reduction is the norm in product cycles. With a new iPhone possibly appearing in the summer, the SoftBank offer makes even more sense.

Nationwide estimates put the sales of the iPhones between 300,000 and 400,000 since its July 11 introduction. I don’t call that a failure.

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