Ur Place

June 8, 2008

In Japan, Cellphones Have Become Too Complex to Use

Filed under: Lifestyle — halfevil @ 9:30 am
TOKYO — Steve Jobs’ new iPhone, expected to be unveiled Monday, is headed to Japan by the end of the year. But the device’s famed ease of use may actually be a turnoff in Japan, where consumers want features, not simplicity.

Indeed, Japanese handsets have become prime examples of feature creep gone mad. In many cases, phones in Japan are far too complex for users to master.

“There are tons of buttons, and different combinations or lengths of time yield different results,'” says Koh Aoki, an engineer who lives in Tokyo.

Experimenting with different key combinations in search of new features is “good for killing time during a long commute,” Aoki says, “but it’s definitely not elegant.”

Japan has long been famous for its advanced cellphones with sci-fi features like location tracking, mobile credit card payment and live TV. These handsets have been the envy of consumers in the United States, where cell technology has trailed an estimated five years or more. But while many phones would do Captain Kirk proud, most of the features are hard to use or not used at all.

“Some people care about quality, but first and foremost it’s about the features,” says Nobi Hayashi, a journalist and author of Steve Jobs: The Greatest Creative Director. He estimates that the average person only uses 5 to 10 percent of the functions available on their handsets.

Japan is a culture of spec sheets. When consumers go to electronics stores to buy a cellphone, they frequently line up the specifications side by side to compare them before deciding which one to buy.

Hayashi owns a Panasonic P905i, a fancy cellphone that doubles as a miniature but crisp 3-inch TV. In addition to 3G and GPS, the device has a 5.1-megapixel camera and motion sensors that enable Wii-style games to be played sitting on the train.

“When I show this to visitors from the U.S, they’re amazed,” Hayashi says. “They think there’s no way anybody would want an iPhone in Japan. But that’s only because I’m setting it up for them so that they can see the cool features.”

In actuality, Hayashi says, the P905i is fatally flawed. The motion sensors are painfully slow, and the novelty of using them is quickly replaced with frustration. And while being able to watch TV anywhere is a spectacular idea, there’s no signal in the subways, and even above ground, the sound cuts out every few seconds.

“There’s nothing more annoying than choppy TV noises,” Hayashi says.

Aoki, who carries two phones, a Sony W44S and an iPhone for accessing the web, has only a vague idea of all the things the Sony cellphone is capable of doing. “Every once in a while, you find an incredible function via the complicated menu,” he says.

The manufacturers, who realize the absurdity of piling on features that don’t work well, are caught in a vicious cycle of materialistic consumers who always want the newest high-tech handsets, and carriers that have complete control over what products and services are provided to their customers.

“The most important thing for us is to provide our end users with a unique user experience through our products,” says Toshi Kawamura, a spokesman for Sony Ericsson Japan.

They’re also at the mercy of the all-powerful carriers, like NTT DoCoMo — the company that created the localized 3G network that makes Japanese handsets virtually obsolete in the rest of the world — who get to decide what applications and functions are compatible with their networks.

“The flashy little functions are cool, but they’re carrier-specific,” Hayashi says. “Once you take this out of Japan, it’s just a piece of metal.” Japanese companies only make 5 percent of global mobile phone sales, and all of those sales are domestic.

Neat-looking gadgets are also a core aspect of one’s identity. Daiji Hirata, chief financial officer of News2u Corporation and creator of Japan’s first wireless LAN, admits to changing handsets more often than is probably necessary.

“Cellphones are always part of any conversation,” he says. “People are always using them and holding them, even in the middle of a meal, so they might not think you’re hip if you’re carrying an old one.”

However, it’s unclear whether Japanese consumers will ditch their complicated cellphones for Apple’s easy-to-use iPhone, which will be sold in Japan by SoftBank by the end of the year.

A survey conducted by Japan Railways showed that just more than half of those polled were interested in buying the iPhone, but that less than one-fifth really knew what the iPhone was.

“It doesn’t have 3G, the camera is only 2 megapixels, and it lacks fun little features like mobile wallet functions and an LED flashlight,” Hayashi says. “It may sell modestly as a smart phone or as an upgraded iPod, but it’s not quite cutting it as a competitor in our mobile-based culture.”


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