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The iPhone in Japan, Part 2: Why the Japanese Really Do Hate the iPhone

This is part 2 of my response to Wired's shoddy coverage of Japan's "hatred" for the iPhone which was exposed by AppleInsider in this damning piece.

Okay, yes, Wired's Brian X. Chen is an asshat who really should be fired for that stunt. And yes, the iPhone is not doing as bad as he says (BTW, SoftBank is not "giving the iPhone away;" it simply follows the same cost structure as all their other models--I pay ¥3300 a month toward the purchase of my iPhone, although I actually don't because I've been with SoftBank long enough that I get a heavy discount on that; this cost structure, as far as I understand it, is mandated by law). But there are some serious barriers to heavy Japanese uptake of the iPhone. Some of these could be fixed; some could not.

No MMS

Yes, the Japanese are far from the first people to complain about this, quite frankly, baffling decision, but it still bears discussing. See, whereas in the US we talk about how many "minutes" a cellphone plan has, the Japanese basically never talk on their phones--it's too damned expensive. It's getting a lot better these days (SoftBank has free calling between SoftBank users all day until 9PM--when network traffic spikes because all those salarymen are coming home), but the habit of using cellphones as a texting device only is already well-ingrained and is not going anywhere anytime soon.

So what makes MMS better than email, which the iPhone does really well? Well, most cellphones in Japan will just let you go to the SMS function, start typing a mail, and if it gets too long or has a picture attached, or if the person is on a different cellular provider (that's right: in Japan, SMS is only for people on the same cellular provider--otherwise it has to be sent via MMS--do you see why people are upset about no MMS?) will just send it out as an MMS. The recipient gets the message, complete with the photo of your damned cat, right away. No fuss. With email, it's treated as something totally different, and it's therefore confusing to people who are used to not thinking about it.

Also, if I get an MMS message on my old phone, it shows that I got a message, I press a button, and I'm looking at the message. On the iPhone, I get a little message that says I got a mail (see below). I then have to log into the phone, start the mail app, navigate to the SoftBank account, and wait for it to load from the network. It just plain isn't as smooth or as nice a user experience.


What you see when you get an email to your SoftBank account.

Further is the issue of emoji, or pictographs. These started out as macros for Japanese emoticons, but eventually morphed into a standard, cross-provider character set. This means that if I'm on SoftBank and I send a picture of a rice ball in my message, my friend on Docomo gets a picture of a rice ball. The actual pictures of rice balls will be different based on the provider and the handset, but we will both have rice balls.

Now, Apple finally addressed this in the 2.2 firmware update, quelling much of the anti-iPhone whining I've heard.


The emoji keyboard on the iPhone

--Problem is that this is not really enough. See, emoji now works between me and other SoftBank users, but when I get a message from someone on another provider, it looks something like this:

do you think you can send this message to Bob? please〓〓〓

--What are the three giant equals signs? You got me. Since the sender is sending Japanese MMS code to a regular mail server, it's just stripping that out and putting these bars there. I can't see whatever little pictures I'm supposed to, and I'll never know what they were. This might seem like a small thing, but a lot of times people just fire off a single-character emoji to tell you what they are doing. For example:

A: Where are you?
B: (picture of a train)

In such a case, if A were using an iPhone, he still wouldn't know where B was. This is actually kind of a big deal, but it's a stupid oversight. There's no technical reason this all couldn't work right; Apple just doesn't understand the Japanese market correctly.

Text Entry

Now, I love the text entry on the iPhone. True, it's not as easy as on a Blackberry (like, a real one, not their gigantic, cumbersome, shitty iPhone clone), but doing it the way they have means the iPhone can have multiple keyboard support, a huge screen, an a small unit. I think it's a good tradeoff.

I'd like to remind you, though, that I write primarily in English, and that uses the roman alphabet.

Why is this a salient point?

Basically, the iPhone was designed to address the general shittiness of cellphone use as experienced by Americans. A lot of this maps correctly to other countries' experiences as well, but the keyboard, which is a vast improvement over the keypad for entering roman characters, is not really an improvement for Japanese, which, it turns out, is really well-suited for keypad text entry.

Japanese is pretty strictly a V/CV language, meaning that syllables are either a vowel or a consonant and a vowel. There are some exceptions, like "tsu," or "kyo" (please pronounce that as one sylable; it's not "kee-oh!"), but overall the phonemic system is pretty straightforward. This has allowed them to organize their writing system around the syllable, not the phoneme, as the basic unit.

So, where in English we have to write three letters to get "tsu," in Japanese (in this case I'll do hiragana), the same syllable is one character: つ.

Furthermore, since there are only 5 vowel sounds in Japanese, the whole writing system can be organized into families. You have the syllables that are vowels only (a, i, u, e, o), and then you have families that start with a certain consonant (e.g. ka, ki, ku, ke, ko). Couple this with predictive input, and you have a very easy text entry system on a keypad. So easy, in fact, that until we got iPhones, my foreign friends and I usually texted in Japanese because it was so much faster and easier.

The default text entry for Japanese on the iPhone, however, is based on the QWERTY keyboard, as below:

--This requires the user to go back to typing multiple letters to get single Japanese characters. For example, "ka," represented by the character か in hiragana, actually requires you to type "k" and "a" (there actually is a real Japanese keyboard layout for computers, but I have yet to meet anyone who knows how to use it--I used to want to learn, but then I figured "when in Rome"). This is not too bad on a computer, where you know what you're typing, but on the iPhone the prediction of the keyboard just doesn't work. It has no idea what key you're going to press next, and is happy to take completely useless key presses like "q," which is unused in Japanese, and just throw them in the middle of Japanese words. Entering Japanese text this way is an exercise in abject frustration.

Probably for this reason, Apple added yet another Japanese keyboard. For those of you counting, that's three:

This keyboard is listed as "kana," but it's not a real kana (i.e. "Japanese") keyboard; it's a graphical approximation of a more familiar text entry method:

--That's right, it's our old friend the telephone keypad. This should satisfy all those Japanese people who are so accustomed to using their cellphones for all text-based communication, right?

Wrong.

If you've grown up typing out text on a numeric keypad, you can do it by touch, with one hand. This suddenly requires two, and you have no idea what you're pressing. This is a little different from the criticism of the iPhone's lack of tactile feedback as we've often heard it before. In Anglophone or other roman-character-using countries, the vast, vast majority of people never had full QWERTY keyboards on their phones, so even a graphical one is much better than what they had before, which was a headache that virtually required people to text like morons (e.g. wht ru doin?). Blackberry or HTC smartphone users who have become comfortable with their phones are usually unhappy with the iPhone's text entry, and that's understandable, but that is some tiny fraction of the cellphone market. For most people, the iPhone is a vast improvement.

In Japan, people have been happily and easily typing away, in real language, on their numeric keypads for about 10 years. Every single one of them has no choice but to adjust to a new (and unwelcome) text entry method if they are moving to the iPhone. This is a huge barrier to uptake, and there is absolutely nothing more Apple can do about it. They've added a silly little numeric keypad emulator. That's as far as they can go.

Other Problems

Here are a few other problems, some of which are peculiar to Japan, some of which are not:

  • Crappy camera (although the multi-megapixel cameras on most cellphones really don't look any better)
  • No video recording (why???)
  • Not enough color options (no pink???)
  • Nowhere to attach a plush Hello Kitty

Again, some of those are easy to address; some are not.

Conclusion

All told, the iPhone is so different and sometimes so far off the mark for Japan that it is surprising it has done as well as it has here, which is actually pretty well. Why? Same reason it does well everywhere else: It actually does what it purports to do. You can play your MP3s and AACs on it; you don't need to re-rip your CDs in some arcane file format only supported by your phone. You don't have to limit your web access to mobile-only sites. Maps are built in. It's cute. And if there's something else you want it to do, there is probably an application out there to do it with.

However, when asked about my phone by Japanese or foreign people, my responses are different. With the foreigners, I know that, unless they are Crackberry addicts, they would love using this phone if they got one. With the Japanese, I still show off the cool stuff, but I also show them the drawbacks for Japan. For the foreigners, I hope to be remembered as the guy who got them to get a gadget that changes their life for the better. For the Japanese, I hope not to be the guy who got them to get a gadget that costs a lot of money and is hard to use.

Yes, Brian X. Chen is an unscrupulous moron, but there was a kernel of truth to the unsupported lies he vomited out in the pages of Wired. He just didn't bother to research them before turning his article in.