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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Can an Android conquer Japan's finicky mobile phone culture?


Staff writer

Google Inc. is taking aim at Japan's cell phone market, but whether the search giant can win over the nation's notoriously picky consumers is very much an open question.

NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s summer 2009 lineup includes a handset that uses Google's Android open source software platform. The HT-03A handset, made by Taiwanese electronics maker HTC Co., will hit the market soon as the first Google phone in Japan.

Android has been getting a lot of buzz in the media, but some telecommunications analysts say it will have a hard time finding acceptance here.

Nevertheless, others point to Android's possibilities in a long-term and broader sense, saying the platform will spread if it can mesh well with Google's cloud computing endeavors like Google Apps. Cloud computing is jargon for using software and data on the Internet instead of programs and information stored on your phone or computer. Yahoo's mail service is a simple example.

The HT-03A is packed with Google features like Gmail, YouTube and Google Map, and comes with a 3.2-inch touch screen and 3.2-megapixel camera.

Despite its Google services, Makio Inui, managing director and telecom analyst at UBS Securities Japan, said the phone won't be terribly attractive to Japanese users because it lacks some necessary functions for this market.

"There are many functions that Japanese users just won't do without," Inui said.

The three vital functions are One-Seg digital TV broadcasts, electronic money and pictorial symbols, Inui said, and more than 90 percent of consumers will turn away if a phone doesn't have all three.

The HT-03A has none of them.

Kenshi Tazaki, a managing vice president at IT advisory firm Gartner Japan Ltd., sees little likelihood that Android will have a powerful impact on Japan's cell phone industry.

"For the general users, it doesn't really matter whether it's Android or not," he said. Users pick a cell phone in a comprehensive way, looking at the balance of design, price and desired functions.

"It might make some sales at the beginning because of the news hook, but it probably won't last long," Tazaki said.

All observers say the unique nature of Japan's cell phone culture is an obstacle for Android. The market here is often described as the "Galapagos Islands" because it differs so much from other nations.

For instance, Nokia Corp., which ships more cell phones than any other maker, withdrew from the Japanese market last year. Domestic cell phone makers dominate this market, but they hold only a tiny share worldwide.

Inui pointed out that even Apple's iPhone, a huge hit in other nations, hasn't made much of a dent here.

Shin Hiraide, part of a volunteer group made up mostly of engineers trying to promote Android in Japan, said that while the Japanese have taken in a big way to using the Net from their cell phones, this phenomenon is still in its infancy in most other countries.

That's why consumers in those countries find handsets like the iPhone and Android-based phones fresh and useful, Hiraide said.

Considering Japan's cell phone culture, Hiraide acknowledged that Android is likely to have a hard time catching on. However, he prefers to take the long view.

"If the discussion focuses on whether or not a phone with Android will sell well in Japan, it won't be an interesting discussion," he said.

But because it is open source, meaning easy access to its source code, Android makes it easier for companies to manufacture cell phones.

There are about 4 billion cell phone users in the world and the number is increasing by hundreds of millions every year, mostly in developing countries, Hiraide said.

"Android can be customized freely. For instance, you can take out unnecessary functions. So there is a possibility that a good device with a reasonable price will come out," he said.

"In that sense, it would be Android that will spread more to developing countries than the iPhone."

As a common platform, Android also may make it easier for Japanese makers to make cell phones for overseas markets.

According to Strategy Analytics, a market and research consultancy, Nokia was responsible for about 38 percent of the world's cell phone shipments in 2007, followed by Samsung at 14.3 percent and Motorola at 14.1 percent. No Japanese companies were in the top five.

For instance, Japanese companies will tailor one handset model solely to DoCoMo's needs and another for KDDI, and so on, "but by using Android, which is a common platform worldwide, they can sell the same phones to the world," Hiraide said.

Tazaki of Gartner Japan, however, doubts this is much of an opportunity for Japanese cell phone makers, noting, "For now, it's hard to see the merits of using Android, so there aren't really positive factors for the companies."

Inui of UBS Securities agrees that use of Android won't grow easily, pointing out that care is needed with the term "open."

"It sounds good, but people don't necessarily want to use it. The market will decide whether it's open or not," he said.

While expecting Android to have a hard time, Tazaki said it could spread if the platform is developed to integrate smoothly with Google's cloud computing applications, such as Gmail and Google Document and forms a vertically integrated service model.

Nevertheless, that will take time, Tazaki said, adding companies are keeping a careful eye on how Android will evolve.

According to DoCoMo, its Android phone will cost around ¥26,000 to ¥29,000 if customers sign a two-year contract.



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