For years, the typical Japanese cell phone — built to operate on a network hardly used anywhere else in the world — has been stuffed with quirky games such as those by Japan’s youngest billionaire, and other applications that cater to specialized local tastes.
That helps explain why Japan’s mobile phone industry earned the nickname “Galapagos” — something that we looked at recently — and why cell phones are called “galakei,” which combines “keitai,” the Japanese word for cell phone, with Galapagos.
Foreign developers of applications for phones didn’t give the Japanese market a second thought because of its insularity. But that is changing as the iPhone, for which tens of thousands of applications have been created, dominates Japanese smartphone sales.
Everywhere one turns, on commuter trains and urban cafes, people are tapping away at their iPhone screens in a relatively rare Japanese embrace of technology that isn’t homegrown.
American and other foreign developers for the iPhone now have eyes on this potentially lucrative market. And Japanese users, thanks to galakei culture that has long had services that charged small fees, such as “i-mode,” are used to paying for their applications.
Japanese developers, previously trapped into targeting galakei, in turn have a chance for a piece of the global iPhone pie, which topped 3 billion application downloads globally in less than 18 months, according to Apple. Apple takes 30% of the application sales, but the rest goes to developers.
Apple doesn’t give iPhone sales breakdowns by country. But Japan makes up a significant chunk of the 70 million iPhones sold worldwide so far, including a record 14.1 million last quarter.
Smartphones, mostly iPhone models which top sales rankings, make up 16% of Japanese cell phone sales of 35 million a year, according to Gfk Marketing Services Japan, which track such data.
Finnish developer Rovio Mobile, behind the “Angry Birds” game, which has racked up 27 million global downloads in a year, introduced a Japanese-language version a month ago.
The game, which features bubbly headed peevish birds that fight pig-like creatures, has been No. 1 in iPhone games in the U.S. and 70 other nations. Hopes are high to move up from No. 6 to No. 1 someday in Japan as well.
Foursquare, another app-of-the-moment currently has more than 4 million users worldwide, is arriving in Japan soon, although not until early 2011.
The growing sales of smartphones running the Android operating system from Google are expected to expand the application business even further, from not just Softbank, the only carrier to offer the iPhone, to giant rivals NTT DoCoMo and KDDI.
Japanese electronic maker Sharp Corp is even bringing out Android mobile devices called Galapagos—in a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation that underlines the Japanese electronics maker’s ambitions for global appeal.
Hawken King, a 32-year-old Briton, who founded a tiny venture in Tokyo called Dadako, which means “brat” in Japanese, is doing all right, selling his product to just 20,000 iPhone users around the world. About half of them are American, but a third are Japanese.
His 350 yen “Facemakr” allows people to easily and smoothly create avatars, or facial likenesses, on iPhone’s touch panel, choosing images of noses, eyes and hairstyles. It costs $2.99 in the U.S.
Developers like King say the success of the iPhone has evened out the playing field, allowing for a diverse range of products, rather than a winner-take-all or carrier-controlled market, which in the past favored established companies over newcomers.
Photo Credit: Brion Vibber / Wikimedia