tech

Japan’s 'Galapagos phones' strive to survive in a smartphone world

32 Comments

Remember way back when Japan was the land of mobile milk and honey. Tales of cell phones with built-it TVs and cameras were the envy of the world. Then Apple stepped in and brought the whole thing crashing down.

To support these once mighty phones, an extensive infrastructure was set up across the country. However, this entire network couldn’t be exported easily and was confined to the islands which made them. They were "garapagosu-ka" (Galapagos-ized).

Japanese old-style mobile phones are increasingly being called "garake" – short for "garapagosu keitai" (Galapagos mobile phone). The name is an obvious reference to the Galapagos Islands, a place where evolution seems to have occurred independently with the rest of the world. In the same way, Japanese mobile phones had become trapped on these islands and are now under attack by alien species.

These flip-top phones, formally yet ironically named “feature phones”, are now coming to thought of as about on par with the white brick that Zack from Saved by the Bell used to haul around.

A teenage girl who uses a feature phone may be called a "mada-gara-joshi" (still Galapagos girl). So, with all the current social stigmas surrounding these phones, do they have a future?

Tadayuki Shinozaki of the MM Research Institute says they do. “One could say that feature phones have died out completely, but smartphones currently only make up a little over one-third (37.7%) of total subscriptions. These phones still have a significant presence in the market.”

In Japan, most smartphones are saddled with monthly fees high enough to dissuade casual users. Also, people such as reporters and salespeople who frequently use their mobiles at work have been returning to Galapagos phones for the sake of a more reasonable battery-life.

According to Shinozaki, feature phones’ more focused set of functions make them enduringly attractive to a number of demographics. “They’re easy to carry for the elderly. There are panic buttons for children to use. These special needs are conveniently and affordably filled by feature phones.”

In spite of being cheap and handy, everyone has to change phones eventually and the ever-growing population of smartphone users shows no sign of letting up.

“For all of 2012, 70% of the people who bought mobile phones bought smartphones. By the end of fiscal year 2013, smartphones and feature phones should have equal market shares. Still, I predict that from then on feature phones will maintain a 30% share," Shiozaki says.

That seems to be a reasonable estimate. As time progresses, more and more middle-aged people will inevitably make the switch once their current contracts come to an end.

By and large seniors will likely stick with what they know and continue using their Galapagos phones. With the aging population of Japan, that’s significant piece of the market. However, it’s only a matter of time before that changes too.

Battery technology for smartphones will improve to meet the needs of professional users over time as well.

In the end, Galapagos phones could hold onto the niche of children and the elderly who need cheap, easy, reliable and durable phones for some time to come. Yet, just like Lonesome George, they won’t be around forever.

Source: President Online

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32 Comments
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This article is riddled with false premises

Tales of cell phones with built-it TVs and cameras were the envy of the world.

Not really. Camera in phone technology was actually developed and patented in the US. American users weren't interested, however, because the image quality was so low at the time, and instagram and other apps had yet to appear.

Then Apple stepped in and brought the whole thing crashing down.

Actually, it was the Blackberry, which well preceded the iphone and was carried by Docomo. OK, it didn't bring everything crashing down, but it was the first popular smartphone.

However, this entire network couldn't be exported easily.

Well, the handsets could easily be exported. The problem is that no one wanted Japanese handsets, apart from a niche collection of geeks. Nokia was building more flexible, rugged and cost-efficient products. Japan deliberately setting up its network based on unique standards (over the protests US trade negotiators) surely didn't help, either.

-3 ( +9 / -12 )

I'd say that @JeffLee just brought this article crashing down.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

@Jeff

Thanks for the excellent and corrected points to this article.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Typical of sloppy reporting in these media. Thanks Jeff. mada-gara-joshi - has anyone heard anybody called this?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

"Remember way back when Japan was the land of mobile milk and honey." No.

Japanese phones were always weird and awkward to use. Only in the past year or two have they been able to handle true SMS between carriers and internationally. Remember when there was Tuka and au, both owned by KDDI, but you could not send text messages from one to the other.

I had a Sony Ericsson with a built-in TV. It never worked on more than two channels and rarely on even those two.

It also had a music player built-in. The trouble was, it would play mp3s, only some strange format called Lismo. Never heard of it. Don't worry. It's useless.

Then, there were English menus that led to Japanese menus, so you were stuck if you did not read Japanese.

Another feature that some had was predictive typing. I have an ancient Nokia that has very good predictive typing. whereas Japanese phones always seemed to predict the wrong words.

And, of course, if you went to another country, you could not simply go to a convenience store, buy a local SIM, insert it and use it.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

In Japan, most smartphones are saddled with monthly fees high enough to dissuade casual users.

Strange...when I changed from AU to Softbank to get my first "smartphone" I cut my monthly bill by more than a half....

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Japanese mobile phones are horrendously overpriced, which is one reason why I don't have one. They forced my wife to upgrade her phone last year and the replacement options were unimpressive and very expensive.

I just bought a new Sony smartphone for my son to use in the UK. It cost Y40000 from a place in Hong Kong. AU and DoCoMo have the same model, but they want Y75600 or Y68670 for it. What a bunch of thieves. Many people can't afford smartphones at the prices these scoundrels charge.

Also, my son pays about Y5 per minute to call Japan from his mobile (using a pre-paid mobile network). My wife pays Y40 per minute on her mobile to make a call in Japan, plus they charge a monthly fee. I think she even has to pay a fee if she wants to use the FM radio on her phone. It's daylight robbery.

When all the manufacturers have moved to China and Japan is left with its costly service companies the economy will be well and truly stuffed.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

gaijintraveller, your points are just confirming what the article said "However, this entire network couldn’t be exported easily and was confined to the islands which made them" these feature phones were made by the Japanese, for the Japanese.

They didnt have SMS, they had push email, well before blackberry stunned the world with the ability to receive emails in real time. The email functions meant they could send not only to all other carriers here, but also to anyone in the world - who could reply for free through email. Blackberry's popularity was because it was a 'cool and sophisticated' looking phone - not because of the email abilities that it was popular for overseas.

SMS in itself is an antiquated technology; freeloading on the spare bytes of data sent to the phone by the cell tower. It costs the phone companies almost nothing, yet they charge through the roof for its use. It is the rest of the world that got ripped off on this one im afraid

Lismo is an AU-only version of iTunes. Dont know which was first, and doesnt really matter. The point is that like iTunes, you are supposed to have bought your music collection through that market and then you can listen to whatever you want. I dont like that idea either, but its certainly not a Gala-kei only concept.

Built-in TV was a blessing during the earthquake, and i wouldnt buy a phone without it now. Having crowds of iphone using friends huddled around while we watched the news on my phone showed me how helpful it can be. Sucks that you didnt have any reception where you were - i have almost all the TV channels on mine.

And as for the predictive typing - if you have ever seen a highschool girl type on these phones you will see it works for them. Sucks for english, i agree, but then thats the reason why they are called Gala-kei's

Jeff Lee, as for the cameras - it wasnt the fact that they just 'had' cameras. Back in 2007 etc they already had 5mp+ cameras, optical zoom, CCD sensors etc when foreign phones were struggling to put 1-2mp cameras in their phones with abysmal photo qualities. Japanese people were already using their phones to replace pocket cameras - something that hasnt happened until recently in the west. They also had super high resolution screens, and payment systems built in. While only the geeks wanted the phones as-is, the features on those phones would have been very popular if they came out on the popular candybar style phones that were the rage in the west at the time.

And it was Apple that brought it crashing down. Smartphones were only used by a small group of geeks until the iphone phenomenon came in. You can see the development/features of Gala-kei phones was increasing every year until about 2 years ago, when the smartphone explosion started. Now they are a sideshow. Barely any features compared to the new smartphones.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

But one thing that these phones have, and i really do miss... Is the ability to quickly pick up your phone and make a phonecall. This is something that has been lost on smartphones, and it is a pity. I carry two phones for this reason alone. One for smartphone stuff, and the other to use as an actual phone. Seems like a lot of Japanese people do this too.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

@gaijintraveller, why do you even need SMS, seeing as Japanese phones have had email / MMS for years SMS is, per byte, by far the biggest data ripoff I've ever seen, plus it only allows 160 characters and only to mobile phone numbers lol.. If SMS is so important, stick with a Nokia 3210

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I'm going back galapagos...can't watch TV on my smartphone.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

risugirl, stick with the Japanese smartphones (if you can handle Android); most of them have One-seg, saifu keitai etc built in. Plus they are waterproof, which makes them very useful for keeping with you while snowboarding, or just in the rain, or watching TV while enjoying an hour-long bath

This is the next 'gala-kei' feature that no doubt Apple/Samsung/HTC integrate in the next round of phones.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Then Apple stepped in and brought the whole thing crashing down.

Rubbish. The article is worthless..

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The "natsukashii" mentality here is so tiresome. As the population gets older and older, everything was better in the "good old days" (whenever that was). Fortunately, I think these old style flip-phones are fighting a hopeless fight and soon, there will only be a handful of models left.

It is interesting to see how Japan Inc. don't seem to be able to catch the interest of the world's consumers, even with their so-called smartphones. It is like a giant ship, unable to change direction.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I had an iphone for a while and was paying around 7000 a month for it, including the service and the actual phone. I've downsized back to a common and garden clamshell phone for email and calls, and it sets me back around 2000. Does the job, costs very little. Can't understand the poster who said a basic phone costs them more than a smartphone. If someone can tell me which provider will rent me a smartphone for 2000 a month I'd love to know about it!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I agree with Scrotum, it is highway robbery!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

technosphere, care to explain why you think it is rubbish?

Smartphones were only making very minor inroads into Japan until the iPhone showed up. Those that got smartphones were not able to use keitai mail addresses so were unable to join mailing lists, or view the keitai only sites that were popular at the time. It really was a small market.

It is widely accepted that Apple brought the smartphone era to the masses. I am more of an Android fan, but i will admit that. Until the iphone came along, smartphones werent 'cool'; they were geeky and difficult to use.

And it is this boom in smartphones that has caused the Gala-kei industry to fall over. If smartphones hadnt become popular in Japan, Japanese people would still be happy with their 16mp camera equipped galapagos keitais.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

care to explain why you think it is rubbish?

Excuse me, but "Until the iphone came along" , smartphones already were "cool". The term "smartphone" was known in Eurasian countries since very first Nokia and Ericsson communicators (Nokia 9000 or Ericsson GS88) produced and released in the mid of nineties . In Japan the Kyocera 6035 was released in 2001. BlackBerry appeared in 2003 So, ".Apple brought the smartphone era to the masses" only in the USA. And the phrase "Then Apple stepped in and brought the whole thing crashing down" has nothing to do with a rude reality.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Not really. Camera in phone technology was actually developed and patented in the US. American users weren't interested, however, because the image quality was so low at the time, and instagram and other apps had yet to appear.

No, not really. Serious camera-phone technology was first started by Canon, and then later by Sharp and Kyocera. And as other users stated, Japan's flip-phones were getting 3 to 5 times the megapixels in their phones as foreign brands.

Actually, it was the Blackberry, which well preceded the iphone and was carried by Docomo. OK, it didn't bring everything crashing down, but it was the first popular smartphone.

Blackberry actually was a massive failure in Japan and never caught on. How did it "bring everything crashing down" when it was a flop that no one bought and Blackberry doesn't even offer its phones in Japan anymore? Oops!

Well, the handsets could easily be exported. The problem is that no one wanted Japanese handsets, apart from a niche collection of geeks.

Except that at the time, Sony was one of the top cell phone makers and plenty of people wanted their handsets.

Please do a little fact-checking before you post.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Galapagos phone will still work in 3yrs while the iPhone 4 will be in the trash. In 10yrs the Galapagos phone will still work while someone else has gone thru 5 iPhones (broken screens, bad battery that doesn't swap out, audio/power connector failure etc).

Ultimately the consumer has the choice.

iPhone almost lost out to the BananaPhone -it was very close with all the catchy ads. Some advantages of the banana form over the flip-top (clam-shell) phones also.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wky5H1xC6-I

1 ( +1 / -0 )

My Galapagos style phone has WIndows 7 inside and works fine. You can use office!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@lachatamber:

No, not really. Serious camera-phone technology was first started by Canon, and then later by Sharp and Kyocera.

Well, no, no, not really: you could just check Wiki to find out that camera-phone tech actually came from the US first. To whit:

The CMOS active pixel sensor "camera-on-a-chip" developed by Dr. Eric Fossum and his team in the early 1990s achieved the first step of realizing the modern camera phone as described in a March 1995 Business Week article

On June 11, 1997, Philippe Kahn shared instantly the first pictures from the maternity ward where his daughter Sophie was born. He wirelessly transmitted his cell phone pictures to more than 2,000 family, friends and associates around the world. Kahn's wireless sharing software and camera integrated into his cell phone augured the birth of instant visual communications.[8][9] Kahn's cell phone transmission is the first known publicly shared picture via a cell phone.[10]

In Japan, two competing projects were run by Sharp and Kyocera in 1997. Both had cell phones with integrated cameras. However, the Kyocera system was designed as a peer-to-peer video-phone as opposed to the Sharp project which was initially focused on sharing instant pictures. That was made possible when the Sharp devices was coupled to the Sha-mail infrastructure designed in collaboration with American technologist, Kahn.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

technosphere, were you in Japan during those times you mentioned? Back in 2008, apart from the odd Xperia you wouldnt see any smartphones. Everyone had gala-keis and the features on them were amazing for the time. Outside of Akihabara you wouldnt see any of those phones you mentioned.

I am not saying Apple was the first, far from it - there were many smartphones in Japan, and even more outside of Japan. But the market share was abysmal here. iPhone was the first popular smartphone; not because of features or specs (most people kept a highly featured gala-kei for taking pictures or sending mail), but because it was good for web browsing, and it was seen as a 'cool' phone. Apple made a smartphone that was useable by dumb people; suddenly the cool crowd, celebs etc were getting them and this popularity brought smartphones 'to the masses'

To be honest though, the real explosion in Japan started when the Gala-kei manufacturers started realising the rising popularity of the iPhone (and the fact that its lack of Gala-kei features such as Oneseg, Saifu keitai, infra red meant did not match Japanese phone usage habits); and released their own Galapagos Smartphones - starting in the end of 2010.

So perhaps the correct term is that Apple triggered the smartphone boom, even if it wasnt the only player

0 ( +0 / -0 )

iPhone was the first popular smartphone; not because of features or specs (most people kept a highly featured gala-kei for taking pictures or sending mail), but because it was good for web browsing, and it was seen as a 'cool' phone. Apple made a smartphone that was useable by dumb people; suddenly the cool crowd, celebs etc were getting them and this popularity brought smartphones 'to the masses'

Really, "Apple made a smartphone that was useable by dumb people" only in the USA. That's right. As for Japan, please, read posts of Japanese people here more attentively. They say that they had their national and much more advanced hand-sets long before the appearing of iphone.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Well, no, no, not really: you could just check Wiki to find out that camera-phone tech actually came from the US first.

Some people wish to show the USA as Motherland of All inventions ever :-))))

It a well-documented fact that Shosaku Kawashima of Canon in Japan designed cell phone combined with a digital camera, in May 1997, before appearing of Philippe Kahn's device.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Well, no, no, not really: you could just check Wiki to find out that camera-phone tech actually came from the US first.

You're right, I could check Wikipedia, but it says Canon was first.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I do read the Japanese opinions on their smartphones, but the ones that post on 2ch and the like are either netouyo or just plain geeks. Real life people, on the other hand will tell you that they want a smart phone because its the cool thing to do right now.

The iPhone came out here in 2007. It had a slow start, but by 2010 it had 71% of the smartphone share in Japan http://mashable.com/2010/04/23/iphone-huge-japan-2/ It had lower spec camera and less features than the local phones but people flocked to it

The first serious attempt at battling this (other than phones which were only really used by geeks) was late in 2010 when Japanese makers started putting out Android phones with Japan-centric features. They had seen that the market was heading towards the smartphone era. Android allowed them to finally make something that could challenge the iphone.

In Japan, it was the appearance/popularity of the iPhone which prompted the manufacturers to focus on Smartphones and stop paying attention to Gala-keis. Ignore it all you want, but its the truth

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

So in other words, Japanese phone makers copied the iPhone.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

Haha nice attempt, but that would be your country's darling Samsung that copied the iPhone. That was proven in a court of law too. How much did that cost them? Oops.

Japanese manufacturers created competition for the iPhone, without having to slavishly copy. They followed iPhone's lead by creating a smartphone (mostly squarish looking designs) - and then added Japan-centric features to appeal to Japanese consumers.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Hey I love my S3,

I dont think i could use anything other that android now.

But one thing, if you have a "smart"phone learn to USE it. If another person asks me a question about what something is or where a country is while there looking through their gallery.....Boy!

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Nine years ago Japanese and Korean customers already had a possibility to watch TV channels from MBSat communication satellite on portable handsets. Everyone could search a web for picture of Teletech IBM100 handset, for instance. After that any statement like "Appple brought an idea of smartphones to Japanese people" looks out merely as apotheosis of naivety..

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I had a Nokia 6550 "Galaphone phone" once. (Provided by AT&T.) Until I broke it & start switching to my LG P999 smartphone. Still, I miss my Nokia 6550. It has features & apps like d actual smartphone. :-)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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