At first glance, Japanese cellphones are a gadget-lover’s dream: Ready for Internet and e-mail, they double as credit cards, boarding passes and even body-fat calculators.
But it is hard to find anyone in Chicago or London using a Japanese phone like a Panasonic, a Sharp or an NEC. Despite years of dabbling in overseas markets, Japan’s handset makers have little presence beyond the country’s shores.
“Japan is years ahead in any innovation. But it hasn’t been able to get business out of it,” said Gerhard Fasol, president of the Tokyo-based IT consulting firm, Eurotechnology Japan.
The Japanese have a name for their problem: Galapagos syndrome.
Japan’s cellphones are like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galapagos islands — fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins — said Takeshi Natsuno, who teaches at Tokyo’s Keio University.
This year, Natsuno, who developed a popular wireless Internet service called i-Mode, assembled some of the best minds in the field to debate how Japanese cellphones can go global.
“The most amazing thing about Japan is that even the average person out there will have a superadvanced phone,” Natsuno said. “So we’re asking, ‘Can’t Japan build on that advantage?’”
The only Japanese handset maker with any meaningful global share is Sony Ericsson, and that company is a London-based joint venture between a Japanese electronics maker and a Swedish telecommunications firm.
And Sony Ericsson has been hit by big losses. Its market share was just 6.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, behind Nokia of Finland, Samsung Electronics and LG of South Korea, and Motorola of Illinois.
Japan’s lack of global clout is all the more surprising because its cellphones set the pace in almost every industry innovation: e-mail capabilities in 1999, camera phones in 2000, third-generation networks in 2001, full music downloads in 2002, electronic payments in 2004 and digital TV in 2005.
Japan has 100 million users of advanced third-generation smartphones, twice the number used in the US, a much larger market. Many Japanese rely on their phones, not a PC, for Internet access.
Indeed, Japanese makers thought they had positioned themselves to dominate the age of digital data. But Japanese cellphone makers were a little too clever. The industry turned increasingly inward. In the 1990s, they set a standard for the second-generation network that was rejected everywhere else. Carriers created fenced-in Web services, like i-Mode. Those mobile Web universes fostered huge e-commerce and content markets within Japan, but they have also increased the country’s isolation from the global market.
Then Japan quickly adopted a third-generation standard in 2001. The rest of the world dallied, essentially making Japanese phones too advanced for most markets.
At the same time, the rapid growth of Japan’s cellphone market in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave Japanese companies little incentive to market overseas. But now the market is shrinking significantly, hit by a recession and a graying economy; makers shipped 19 percent fewer handsets last year and expect to ship even fewer this year. The industry remains fragmented, with eight cellphone makers vying for part of a market that will be less than 30 million units this year.
Several Japanese companies are now considering a push into overseas markets, including NEC, which pulled the plug on its money-losing international cell-phone efforts in 2006. Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba and Fujitsu are said to be planning similar moves.