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Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009

TECHNOLOGY

Apple polishes up its gadget arsenal

Dearth of developments disappoints tech fans, but Nano upgrade signals new battle in Japan


Special to The Japan Times

Apple's "It's Only Rock and Roll" music-technology event last week was closely watched by Apple fans in Japan, where many consumers have anointed the iPod and iPhone as their music players of choice over the past few years, even over homegrown competitors such as Sony.

Apple store
Buzz in the box: Apple's latest upgrade to its iPod Nano device will put pressure on Japanese cellular phone companies to upgrade their products. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The tag line of the day was inspired by the title of a Rolling Stones song, but "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" may have been a more appropriate title.

Contrary to a reported Yoko Ono leak, there was no mention of The Beatles on iTunes, there was no mythical Apple tablet, and there was no camera announced for the iPod Touch. The big revelation was a video camera for the iPod Nano, which caught many tech analysts off guard.

Why put a video camera on the Nano? Apple CEO Steve Jobs referred to the success of the Flip camera, created by Pure Digital (and later bought by Cisco). The Flip is a cheap and simple hand-held video camera that has been a hit with consumers, and Apple wants in on some of that action.

This market has yet to be fully tapped in Japan, and it's notable that the Flip isn't available for purchase here. The new Nano, with 640 × 480 VGA video capture at up to 30 frames per second, might be in the best position to fill that void.

Hideki Francis Onda, former Apple director in Japan and current president at Focalpoint (a company that brings Apple peripherals to Japan), notes Apple is no stranger to creating new markets and making you want things you didn't realize you needed.

"The Nano may replace keitai denwa (mobile phone) video that people are shooting, which is captured at 15 frames per second." Onda says. "So a lot of people might opt to say 'OK, maybe I can carry another device other than my NTT or SoftBank generic phone.' "

There is also the possibility that the Nano's camera could raise privacy concerns in Japan, given there is no light or sound to indicate video is being filmed.

Onda speculates, "I think Apple will be forced to do something to add an LED on the next version that denotes you're shooting. But now I think people are so aware if they see something that resembles a lens, I think it's a nonissue."

Much like the Flip, the Nano does not shoot still photos. In a postevent interview with David Pogue of The New York Times, Jobs explained this was because the sensors are thinner than the ones required for still photography and wouldn't fit into the slim 6.2-mm shell. But Apple crammed in other unexpected features rather than trading them off for camera space. The new Nano also has an FM radio. This is a small but welcome addition that users have been calling for since the first iPods were released.

Given that the Nano is much smaller than other consumer video cameras, and contains other additional features, it is expected to sell very well both in Japan and abroad. At the very least, the Nano will rewrite last month's headlines that Sony's Walkman had dethroned the iPod as the top-selling music player in Japan.

The explanation for this statistical aberration was the success of the iPhone 3GS, which cannibalized sales of the Nano without being included in the music-player sales figures — because technically, it's still a phone.

The new iPod should revitalize the Nano, which previously didn't have much going for it when compared to the Touch or the iPhone. However, Tokyo-based technology consultant Steve Nagata says even with such a significant upgrade, Jobs and company do have their work cut out for them in Japan.

"Though market share in Japan is growing for Apple, it is still an uphill battle and it takes something pretty big to make a noticeable change," he observes.

When Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller took the stage for the iPod Touch segment of the event, many noted he didn't introduce much new information. He announced the new, lower $199 price tag (¥19,800 in Japan) and lauded the Touch as a leading portable game platform that surpasses the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP in the number of titles available.

Nagata notes the Touch revision was certainly a disappointment to many.

"The price drop and hardware upgrade should ensure good sales through the holiday season, but not much beyond," he says.

The talk of price and gaming was distracting from the elephant that wasn't in the room — that being the lack of a camera for the Touch. Widespread rumors of problems during production appear to have been confirmed since the conference as the Web site ifixit.com dissected a new Touch to find a small space, likely reserved for a camera.

"It's a gaming machine, but then again you're starting to see all these apps where you can use the camera to be in virtual worlds," Onda says, reflecting on the potential of a Touch with a camera. "Sekai Camera (an augmented-reality application from TonchiDot), and other kinds of interesting things are happening in Japan. There will be a camera obviously. Now what it's going to do, nobody knows.

"I think that the camera, the applications, the device OS, and that data center [Apple is] building down in North Carolina ties into all of that in the future."

Despite any letdowns at the latest Apple event, as with the recent operating system update, the focus was more on gradual improvements, speed tweaks and incremental upgrades.

Five months after a liver transplant, Jobs showed he is back at the helm of the company. At the end of the day though, an upright Jobs might have been Apple's most significant upgrade. How much the firm shines in the future, as always, depends solely on him.

Rick Martin writes about technology at 1rick.com.


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