The Fallacy of the Japanese Mobile Internet Comparison

Japanese mobile phone keypad (Model Vodafone V...

Image via Wikipedia

Last week, renowned Internet and Technology analyst, Mary Meeker gave her annual presentation about Internet Trends at the Web 2.0 conference.  She made some very bullish predictions about online advertising and about mobile web adopotion.  In fact, she predicted that mobile web usage will overtake PC-based web usage by 2012.   To back up this claim, she cited the similar trend in Japan as a predictor for what will happen in the US/globally. Now I’m the last person to be a bear about mobile, but I did want to dispel a common myth about Japan.

People commonly point to Japan, and Asia broadly as being more technologically advanced than the US, particularly with regard to adoption of consumer electronics and mobile technology.  Reasons given include cultural stereotypes – they just like gadgets more than Americans and government regulations – the Japanese government has taken various steps to ensure high-speed mobile networks developed quickly.  In general, it’s common to paint a picture of Americans and our government being luddites compared to Japan and that consequently we will follow the technology adoption path of Japan, just years later.

I also once believed the myth about looking to Japan’s mobile adoption and usage as a blueprint for the future of the US mobile market, but when I did some more research about Japan, I found out what actually happened there and how significant differences make the comparison fairly worthless. As I understand it, the mobile web took off and surpassed the PC web in Japan for the following reasons:

1. Typing in Japanese on a PC keyboard is actually quite cumbersome relative to typing in English.  An innovative system was developed to allow input of Japanese characters using predictive algorithms on the numerical keypad.  This allowed people to actually type in Japanese faster on their mobile phones then on PC keyboards.   Also, due to the use of Chinese characters (Kanji) for much of the Japanese written language, mobile screens can display much more content in Japanese than a comparable  screen displaying English.

2. The Japanese government made efforts to promote cheap mobile internet access the country through a series of de-regulatory moves. Conversely, for some reason, the government didn’t do this for home broadband which remained slow and very expensive and hence had very low adoption.

3. In Japan, a significant amount of the population commutes by train and not by car as in the US. Particularly in the Tokyo area, commuters spend a significant amount of time on cramped trains, where cellular coverage is robust (even in the US where people commute via train – much of the time service is non-existent).

These factors created an almost completely opposite environment than we have in the US.  In the US, home broadband reached a near ubiquitous footprint before people really started adopting the mobile web.  Even now, speeds are still significantly higher at home/work than they are for the mobile web.  Most importantly though, no matter which type of mobile keyboard or touchscreen, mobile input for English is much slower/more cumbersome than on a full PC keyboard.  Small screens also mean small amounts/snippets of content being displayed.

For a long time, carriers in the US offered a slow and expensive mobile web with sub-par devices for consuming/creating content.  The iPhone started a revolution that has changed all of this (even gaining significant traction in Japan).  Like all disruptive technologies, initially some of the things people do with their phones are surprising, like reading full length books on a tiny screen.  I do believe though, that as these devices get better, their mobility and more intuitive UI will continue to eat into the amount of time we use the web on PCs.  I also think that a whole new set of people, both in the US and abroad will experience smartphones as their first and potentially only computers.

So, in short, I disagree with Mary Meeker about looking to Japan as a model, but don’t fundamentally agree with the outcome, although I think that her timing is aggressive.  Maybe she intends to include tablets as mobile? If so, 2012 could happen.  If not, I think we’re a few more years out from that reality, after all currently just .

Other examples of mis-attributing mobile adoption patterns in Japan include:

1. Mobile Payments using NFC (Near Field Communication) – Japan has long been a country devoid of credit cards, for cultural and regulatory reasons.  Thus there was a huge advantage to using mobile payments vs. cash.  The US has a very different culture of payments, with credit cards playing a prominent role.  Therefore, it’s unclear if the US will follow the same trajectory as Japan in this area either.

2. QR codes– These visual or 2D barcodes have become relatively ubiquitous in Japan as ways to decode information from ads/billboards and elsewhere.  It is unclear if the commuting patterns or other cultural factors make this technology more well-suited to Japan or if the availablity of better cameras in their phones and native decoding software are the only reasons this took off in Japan but is facing slower adoption in the US.

3. SMS – people may point to SMS as something the US adopted later than other countries and might theorize that Japan preceded us with this trend too. The reality is that in Japan, mobile e-mail is much more prevalent than SMS and has been forever. This further serves to demonstrate that the differences in mobile usage across countries sometimes relate to key cultural, environmental and demographic differences, not just one country being ahead of another in technology, regulations or otherwise.

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