The Galapagos Syndrome

When I arrived to Japan in 2004 one of the first things that caught my attention were the cellphones. In Europe I was using a 2G Nokia and suddenly I had in my hands a 3G Casio cellphone.

My brand new Japanese 3G Casio cost me three euros, much cheaper than the 2G Nokia I had just left in Spain, it had a much bigger screen, I could use the Internet without worrying about being charged exorbitant rates, GPS navigation, 3 megapixel camera etc. It looked like a cellphone brought from the future, with functions and characteristics that were going to be seen in Europe in the coming years.

It shocked me that my new Japanese mobile phone couldn’t send or receive SMS, it turns out that all Japanese cellphones use e-mail by default as the way to interchange messages since 1997, something that wasn’t available in Europe until the arrival of the Blackberry and similar devices many years later. It was also confusing that it was produced by Casio; a Casio cellphone? Up until then I had only seen calculators and watches made by Casio; why wasn’t Casio selling cellphones in the rest of the world?

In 1999 i-mode was born in Japan, the technology that allowed the land of the rising sun to leap five years ahead of the rest of the world. i-mode allowed users to access the Internet in mobile devices. The price for using those services was so cheap that it soon became something used by almost everybody, reaching a usage of almost 60% of Japan’s population.

Vodafone tried to enter the Japanese market but failed in the attempt. Nokia also tried and failed as well, their cellphones were too “old” for Japanese standards. Ericsson also tried but eventually Sony “rescued” them. Motorola also tried with worldwide popular cellphones like the Razor but also didn’t succeed. Japan is a strange place with a very peculiar mobile ecosystem, all the industries related to mobile communications have evolved during the years with almost no foreign influence, developing their own telecommunication networks, their own communication standards and their own mobile terminals. Japan’s mobile phone market is something like the Galapagos Islands, isolated from the rest of the world.

Outside of Japan people usually ask me: If Japanese mobile devices are so ahead of their time, why they don’t go out to conquer the world? That is a very difficult question to answer, in fact it’s so difficult to figure out that the Japanese government and the biggest companies in the industry have formed a special committee with the only aim to solve what they have called the Galápagos syndrome.

The two main causes of Japan’s Galápagos syndrome are the extreme control that the phone companies exert over local phone terminal manufacturers and that cellphones are designed from the beginning to be used exclusively in Japan, with Japanese keypads and functions that are only useful in Japan, they are not designed to be used in the rest of the world like for example Nokia cellphones or the iPhone.

NTT Docomo tried to introduce the i-mode to the European market but it wasn’t something as revolutionary as it had been in Japan and we can now say that it was mainly a failure, did it arrive too late? E-mail on the cellphone, push e-mail, also arrived to Europe quite late, but it was not introduced by Japanese companies. American and Finnish companies were the ones that succeeded in incorporating the Internet into cellphones.

The Walkman, the PlayStation and the Wii knew how to go out of the ecosystem where they were born and spread throughout the planet; Japanese cellphones sat comfortably in their local ecosystem and evolved oblivious to external influences for many years. They always knew how to mitigate the entry of non-native new “species”; but lately something is changing with the arrival of the HTC3 and the iPhone; being able to adapt to any environment they have suddenly burst into the Japanese Galápago ecosystem. It seems like something is finally changing, let’s see how the Japanese industry and the Galápagos Syndrome committee react; will the Japanese “native species” go out and conquer the world? or they will stay in Japan trying to devour the “invading species”, like HTC cellphones or the iPhone, as they have been doing up until now?

Article originally published in the Spanish newspaper El País.

Other articles published in El País: