It’s finally here. The iPad, the legendary tablet that has been rumored for over a decade. So what to make of it now?

iPad

While the announcement event is set at 10am PST to maximize the impact to US based media, the round world conspiracy placed the event at 3am JST. What is it about Apple and sleep deprivation for fans in Japan?
But it’s a testament to Apple’s popularity in Japan that I and around 50 other Apple Enthusiasts gathered in a basement pub in Harajuku to wait for the fabled announcement. Huge thanks to KNN Kanda and Hideki Francis Onda for arranging this event and I should note that not only was there another similarly sized even on the other side of town, but the livestream traffic covering this event alone included over 16,000 viewers (and of course a few dozen die-hard MiJ members).

iPad Greeky Crew

What a geeky crew! So many computers and smartphones in the room, after the announcement we decoded the human genome for fun

From Midnight Kanda-san led the discussion with a number of interviews with the tech pundits in the room (including yours truly) and it was clear that the expectations were very high for the announcement. Amazingly the energy just seemed to build as we approached 3am and by the time Steve Jobs hit the stage everyone was out of their seats and the room was buzzing with conversations and comments. Of course this led to my big fail of the evening. My plan for a livestream went far under expectations as dozens of computers in the room choked our network to a trickle. Streaming video from the event in San Fan was out completely and my outgoing stream was choppy and frequently dropped off. Sorry guys. :(

Luckily, the event is already up on Apple’s webpage and you can view it here if you haven’t seen it.

So how did things go? Well, even without live video we had a room full of geeks scanning webpages and chat/twitter streams to glean every bit of information as soon as it was posted. So we were able to keep up with each point in near real-time. I was amazed how fast each powerpoint slide was deconstructed. Almost instantly the call came out. “Where’s the camera?” then we noticed there was no Phone option. This was not what people were expecting, but so far no one seemed too upset.

Overall in fact, the device specs were well received. Size and weight seemed to be right on, with the comparison made that it weighs about the same as two large cans of beer (yes we were in a bar at around 3:30am at this point). Screenshots were analyzed for information on ports and potential for accessories. This of course is VERY important here in Japan. The interface drew a less animated response. I guess it fell right in the middle of most people’s expectations. No one seemed particularly excited or disappointing by the new multi-touch interface. Even more than games (which totally excited me), it was the iWork announcement that drew the biggest response. Quick confirmation came down that Japanese language input would be in place as this is a simple ported OS from a multi-lingual OS.

The eBook announcement met with generally positive response. Helped by the presenters, the Amazon Kindle comparisons were thoroughly explored and as a happy Kindle International version owner I have to admit that now I think my Kindle is kind of crappy. In my opinion, the iPad is the ebook that people have been waiting for. A transitional interface that is natural to a paperlover, but powerful for the savvy user. It’s high time that we start the move away from paper guys. It’s bad for the environment, it’s wasteful in terms of distribution and storage, and it does nothing but create waste in the retail arena. Someday, books will be rare things. something you can give to someone as a graduation gift or something. Not a regular part of your day-to-day.

iPad Geeky Crew 2

Now for the big downer of the evening. Well, first there was some happy. Costs were well received here. Steve Jobs made good his attacks on netbooks when he placed the starting cost for a 16GB wi-fi only iPad at $499. I think we can expect to see that translate into around a 55,000 yen pricetag in Japan. Of course the 64GB 3G enabled model will run more than two times that amount, but for similar capabilities, the iPad will certainly give netbooks much to fear. Still, it’s going to be a hard task for Apple to woo Japanese consumers away from “safe” options. The lack of a built in keyboard alone will frighten the typical Japanese customer all the way to a nice safe Toshiba. The Keyboard dock looks good and did get a favorable response in the room, but we will have to see how that holds up in the real world. I am sure however we will see cases with built in keyboards coming out of the woodworks in no time.

Now the bad news was the release schedule. While not explicitly stated, the expectation is that Japan will get the devices very close to the official US launch of “some undisclosed day in March”. But then chaos reigned when it came to the 3G enabled version. The AT&T price plans started off the confusion. Will we see similar plans in Japan? From Softbank (probably)? What’s a micro-SIM? (This is a micro-Sim).
The newly announced format has yet to be seen or connected with any domestic Japanese carriers. This could potentially delay the launch past the initial international launches in June. The modem of course is an HSDPA tri-band (850, 1900, 2100) compatible device eliminating both HSUPA upload speeds and eMobile network compatibility from the mix. The unsubsidized price model may not work well with both Japanese customers and carriers, so we here in Japan have a lot of question marks left following the announcement.

And then it was over. Certainly the room was wanting more. What about iPhone 4.0? No Flash (I’ve been saying for a while it is unlikely)? Murmurs of “One more thing” echoed through the room, but for naught.

Instead, Kanda-san and Onda-san placated us with giveaways galore including restaurant vouchers, tunewear iPhone cases (some even covered with Swarovski crystals), real Apple products (like applesauce) and even a very elite pair of Atomic Floyd headphones. And everyone even got a free iPhone/iPod FM transmitter.

iPad Giveaway

Giveaway loot thanks to Onda-san and Focal Point Computers/Tunewear

So how do I feel about the iPad in Japan?

A bit conflicted to be honest. I think the device is a great hardware platform. Personally I am disappointing that Apple hasn’t figured out how to do multi-tasking on a mobile device yet. I understand why we won’t see it until it’s perfect and agree with the philosophy, but still would have loved to see that one solved.

Obviously this is not a personal communicator tool. The iPhone fill that niche, so the lack of cameras is understandable. But I still think Apple may regret that decision down the road. It may not fit with Steve Job’s image of what the iPad will be, but the future lies heavily on the backs of the individual developers of 3rd party apps and I can’t help but wonder what they might have been able to do with the extra tools.

I do see this as the biggest threat ever to old ways of publication and distribution of media, particularly written media. But it’s still just a threat, not the silver bullet. Now we have to see how the more conservative side of the equation responds.

I’m calling this as Apples next AppleTV. It’s a gamble. However Like the AppleTV, this is not a guarantee win or lose. It will depend on how Apple handles the ball from here. Best case, iPad becomes the new mobile platform to beat/imitate/and berate, worst case, it flounders and Apple will scavenge the corpse for the next generation of Macbooks.

So ask me again in a few months. I’m sure I’ll have a better idea then since I’ll be getting one just for the new MLB Live app.

Follow our complete iPad landing in Japan coverage

Just read Hideki Francis Onda’s blog post on some predictions for next week’s big Apple announcement and thought is was a good time to throw my own thoughts into the overfilled swimming pool.

At this point it’s pretty useless to talk about what industry the new tablet is going to dominate or how much better or worse the new iPhone is going to be next to an Android phone or even *shudder* Windows Mobile 7. There is plenty of speculation and rumor out there and I give little to none of it much attention. There are very few people out there with real information or actual insight and the rest of the lot is just quoting or mis-quoting other people who are just guessing.

I liked Francis’s spin on it. So rather that trying to forecast what will be announced, I’ll focus on what direction I think Apple is going to go and what they should be working on. My hope is that this will align well with the announcement, but to be very clear, This is simple wishing and speculation on my part.

1. Apple needs to diversify the iPhone line. I see multiple iPhone platforms coming out. I image this would work like the Macbook and Macbook Pro lines. No, not the iPhone nano. But a diversification of different levels of customer. The iPhone Basic would be a lower cost iPhone for entry level users who basically stick to simple use. Games, Navigation, Standard apps. Effectively a traditional cellphone users who wants to play with an iPhone. Then an iPhone Pro line that would throw in all the bells and whistles, but at a higher price point. A forward facing camera for video chat, biometric security, built in RFID host/slave capability and a high quality camera. By splitting the line, Apple would achieve several things. Greater overall market share by reaching deeper into the low end cell phone market while maintaining dominance at the top of the smartphone market. They can also break away from the annual refresh cycle which should smooth the new purchase and upgrade spikes. The iPhone needs to break away from the new adopter market and find a home that is solid in the mass market.

2. iPhone 4.0 needs to clean things up. More than add great new features, it’s critical for the iPhone to start doing a better job at the things it does now. Push notification is still a mess, with so many applications using the feature, simply fighting over a single pop up bubble and badge notifiers creates a traffic jam and renders the feature nearly useless. Android and even Blackberry handle this much more efficiently and without background processing (which I still think is somewhat unlikely on the current hardware configurations). App management certainly needs a lot of work and Apple needs a way to make things easy for novice users while improving the experience for power users. The current interface hasn’t changed much since the days before the app store and if the iPhone can easily manage thousands of songs, it should be easy to navigate and find an app out of more than a few dozen.

3. Customization. Everyone else is moving full steam into skinning and customizing your UI to match your personality. I understand the iPhone shying away from this for the first year or so as it needed to create the iconic image that is now recognizable (and imitated) now all over the world. Of course, now that the iPhone has reached the top of the heap, it no longer gets the “it’s cool cause it’s rare” crown. The next step beyond this is customizable user experiences. Having an iPhone no longer makes you cool, but having one that looks like no one else’s might (not really, but people think it does). Firefox now has personality and Google chrome has themes. It’s time for Apple to open up customization on the UI.

Now to finish off some thought on the iPhone’s future in Japan. I think it goes without saying that Softbank has done Apple a solid here in Japan. The success of the iPhone in Japan is through no small part due to the concessions made to Apple by Softbank to allow the iPhone to be itself here rather than try to fit into the narrow traditional mobile structure that has existed in Japan. The advertising blitz and well executed sales channel has also contributed greatly to the overall positive image of the iPhone held by the Japanese consumer. While it isn’t on everyone’s wishlist, everyone knows what it is and generally people think it’s cool. This is contrasted greatly with the planet killer craters left in the landscape by Docomo’s failed smartphone launches. I do not see Apple and Docomo pairing up anytime soon,for no other reason than I don’t think Docomo is capable of both having and executing a good idea. Rumors abound about Apple moving over to Verizon and from what I hear about the general dissatisfaction with AT&T I am hardly surprised, but at this point in the game Apple has little to gain by partnering with the big “D” in Japan. Of course an internet mobile device powered by Emobile would certainly get my interest.

We still have a few more days until the big announcement, but I think the general consensus is that interesting things are on the way. I’ll be following the announcement live and you can check back to this website to hear more analysis on the impact of the news, particularly on how this will effect us here in Japan as soon as it hits the web.

It seems the race to integrate the RFID Osaifu Keitai into the iPhone is gearing up in Japan.

A New Case

Not long after the introduction of the smrtcase Glide which allows to slide up to 3 or 4 business cards or 2 credits cards, thus allowing to attach a FeliCa-type card to the iPhone, Mophie is announcing a special case made just for Japan.

Focal will indeed soon start selling a case which will also allow to slide a Felica card into the case, allowing the widely popular wireless payment system to be part of the iPhone experience in the country.

(Image by Focal.co.jp)

FeliCa?

FeliCa is a system of secure contact-less smart card developed by Sony that became widely popular in Japan, but is also in some other parts of Asia. It not only permits payments for railfare transit payments (anyone having used the Japan railway system has experience it), but also for vending machine, convenient stores and a wide variety of services. It is also used for loyalty points cards or credit cards for instance.
The system is known under many brand service names, like Suica for the JR East railway system, PASMO for the Tokyo subway system or Edy for a widely used prepaid wallet system.

(Image by Sony Corporation)

Wireless Payments Gone Mobile

The subsequent development of the Mobile FeliCa and its introduction under the Osaifu Keitai by NTTDocomo in 2004 led customers to be able to pay directly with the mobile phone, the RFID chip being embedded.

…Absent in the iPhone

The absence of such a chip was often cited for the slow adoption rate the iPhone had in the Japanese market.

Today, with sales estimated at more than 2m, the handset introduction not being called a failure anymore and the well-known resistance of Apple to release country-specific products, cases as the Mophie or the smrtcase are filling the gap with more traditional keitais and certainly leading the way to a even greater success.

For the last week or so I have been evaluating the smrtcase Glide for iPhone. I’m happy to report that in many ways it has exceeded my expectations. While the case market for iPhones is over saturated beyond all reason, the smrtcase adds some much in demand functionality at a truly bargain price.

The killer feature of the smrtcase Glide is the ability to easily store and access cards from the back of the case. You can put in business cards, credit cards, and of course smart cards like Edy electric money or train and subway transit cards. There is enough space to hold about 2 credit cards or 3-4 business cards. The center opening in the back makes it easy to slide out cards as needed from a slot along the side of the case. This works well, but does have some drawbacks (namely exposing the top card in the case to dirt and other environmental elements).

Beyond the card holder, the case stands up well against the standard case offerings. The plastic is high quality, although a bit slippery for my tastes. Remarkably, the case is not much larger than many full protection iPhone cases. It’s a bit of a hybrid, completely covering the back and side bezel, but leaving the top and bottom edges exposed. Corners are also fully protected. This is a single piece case with a snap on design similar to a lot of the minimal scratch-guard shields that are all the rage. It also comes in three colors, however out of the pink, white, and black, I think black is by far the best looking. Overall the case looks good, is lightweight and adds a minimum of bulk to the phone.

(Not much thicker than my Griffin Carbon case)

The card compartment is not actually a sealed separate compartment inside the case. When you slide a card in the slot, the card becomes sandwiched between the back of your iPhone and the inside of the case. Don’t worry, you won’t scratch your phone with raised numbers on your credit card. smrtcase provides a protective sticker that you ally the the back of your iPhone to prevent scratches. I found this solution to work well, although it feels a bit inelegant and the rounded back of the iPhone makes it impossible to apply the sticker without tons of bubbles. Since the case and cards cover the back pretty much all the time, this isn’t such a big deal, however it does make it less than ideal if you like to swap cases around often or let you phone go commando from time to time. Basically once to you apply the sticker, you best leave the case on from now on.

(Plenty of space in the back for cards)

(Not so nice. Back protective sticker is functional, but not so great looking)

Using the case is pretty much exactly as you would think. Cards slip into the back compartment easily and can be pushed out with just a flick of the thumb. The shape of the iPhone does force the cards to bend slightly, but it’s little enough that cards will lay flat immediately after you remove them from the case. Of course due to the nature of Smart Cards, it’s difficult and in many cases impossible to put in two smartcards at the same time and have them both function properly, but it can easily hold a train pass and a couple of business cards. You can put in a train pass and swipe it at an electric gate without removing the card at all, but I’ve found the iPhone will block enough of the signal, so make sure to swipe it with the card/backside down and the screen up. Other than that, it works the same as the small plastic card holder I used to use.

Using the smrtcase Glide as a trainpass:

While this doesn’t enable the full “saifu keitai” functionality that most Japanese cellphones have, it does bring the most desirable functions at last to the iPhone. Of course there is no actual interaction between stored cards and the iPhone, but I have happily used my iPhone as a train pass and to pay for food and drinks in a train station. Best of all the look of envy in the faces of my iPhone wielding friends when they realize what the case can do.

So this case finally adds the capability to the iPhone that I have wanted since it first came out. The only thing that could ruin it of course is the price. I am happy to report that this is where the best news of all is. When I first received the review unit I thought cost would be the weak point. With the multitudes of competitors out there a single trick case like this might have difficulty winning over buyers. Knowing this, smrtcase partnered with Focal Point in Japan to bring it out here for only 1,980 yen. That makes this one of the cheapest cases on the market (not counting the cheapo disposable silicon cases). Considering the build quality and the usefulness of the card holder it’s an amazing deal.

So to sum up.

Pros:
Good build quality
Great feature to add smart cards
Small, stylish design looks good
Great low price

Cons:
Sticker protection functional, but makes it impossible to swap around cases.
Open hole in back exposes cards to dirt
Color options not great. Would like a carbon fiber or leather version.

If you would like to order one you can get the in Japan at the Focal Point Online Store and at Rakuten Ichiba