Era's End: Japanese Stop Making 'Galapagos Phones'

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/04/2015 01:30:00 AM
Actually, the flip phone won't die in Japan, just the proprietary OS.
The "Galapagos Syndrome" is the term coined to describe standards and technologies that have emerged only in Japan, not to spread to the rest of the world. This, of course, draws from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador that have hosted wildlife not found in the rest of the world. The "Galapagos Syndrome" is a negative term denoting how Japan has, in recent years, become quite insular in developing consumer products. Whereas Japan was once an exporting powerhouse, some believe that it has become increasingly inward-looking. It's a downscaling of expectations: Japan Inc. aimed to sell to the world before but now it mostly looks to sell at home.

I would doubt that statement, of course, since Japan has always had some peculiarly Japanese product categories like kei cars with a maximum displacement of 660cc sold nowhere else in the world. Still, homegrown Galapagos phones are supposedly endangered even in Japan itself: does anyone else still use flip phones? Apparently these remain popular among older Japanese, of whom there are many. But all things must come to an end, and so must these phones:
Japanese manufacturers from 2017 will end production of conventional mobile phones with custom operating systems, bringing an end to once-pioneering technology that led to the world's first Internet-able cellphones. The operating systems and other core technologies of conventional devices, used primarily for phone calls and texting, are developed jointly by handset makers and wireless carriers. With the rise of smartphones, development of those operating systems have become a drag on their earnings.

Manufacturers will continue producing handsets that look and function much like conventional phones, due to the enduring popularity of flip phones with keypads among older consumers, but these will be loaded with Google's Android operating system. NEC currently supplies conventional phones to Docomo. It will stop developing new models in March 2016 and end production in March 2017. This will mark a complete withdrawal from the mobile phone market, as it bowed out of the smartphone business in 2013. For now, the company will continue to service products it has already sold.
There remain any number of cell phone makers only for the domestic Japanese market, but they will be thinning over the next few years:
The spread of smartphones has left older-style devices almost entirely confined to Japan, where they have been dubbed "Galapagos phones," evoking an isolated environment housing unique species. Japanese electronics makers and mobile carriers have ramped up joint handset development since the late 1990s. In 1999, Docomo rolled out i-mode, the world's first service allowing mobile phones to connect to the Internet. Japanese telecommunications and electronics companies were pioneers in the field.

But the situation changed after Apple released the iPhone in 2007 and Google worked with phone manufacturers worldwide to launch Android devices from 2008 onward. Smartphones exploded in popularity. Conventional-phone specialist Nokia sold its handset business, while Japanese companies were forced to restructure. Japan's shift toward smartphone technology will mark another step in the field's division into Apple and Google camps.
It makes me kind of sad, but it's another episode of the iOS versus Android juggernaut steamrolling the previously more diverse Japanese telecoms ecosystem. The aging customer base aside which is not fond of apps and assorted frippery, Galapagos phones have other advantages, such as battery life and durability:
There are several ways to explain this rise. One could be the demographic changes Japan is undergoing. As is well-known, Japan has a low birth rate coupled with an aging society. And obviously old folks here would have more trouble navigating the touch screens and the various apps of a smart phone. Most only need to use two basic functions in a cell phone: calling and texting. Another reason explaining the comeback of flip phones is that it’s simply cheaper than a smart phone.

The other reason is durability. The phones are notoriously difficult to break and Delphia Putinsky, a bilingual tour guide in Japan, says she keeps her flip-phone precisely for that reason. “Drop you iPhone without a cover, and you get the spiderweb of death—the screen gets cracks which spread and spread. You can throw your garakei across the room, hit the wall, and it still functions like new.” Finally, there’s also undeniably one thing that flip phones surpasses the smart phone in: holding a charge for more than one day.