The NY Times has an interesting article up on Why Japan’s Cellphones Haven’t Gone Global.
Techmeme and Twitter shows a decent amount of interest in the article, which is news for most people outside of Japan. It’s all the more interesting because NTT DoCoMo have just launched the first Android phone in Japan, and the iPhone 3GS has been somewhat successful for SoftBank. Probably not as successful as SoftBank would have wanted, but with NTT tied up with Google, SoftBank was smart to tie up with Apple, leaving AU looking disheveled and weak with no significant smartphone in it’s lineup.
So the key question is what should Japan Mobile Inc. (i.e. the companies that make Japanese cellphones) do? Sadly for those Japanese businesses, it’s too late to develop a new mobile OS and to try to compete on that because none of the Japanese companies are strong enough to develop a compelling mobile platform on their own (or they would have done so already). Tie-ups such as Sony-Ericsson have been less than compelling. So if there’s no reasonable way to compete on the OS level (try to convince me I’m wrong), and competing on hardware manufacturing is a losing game due to cheaper production in Taiwan or China, then there’s only competing at the application level. Sad reality.
Time and time again, Japan’s lack of prowess in software development (with the lone exception of console gaming platforms and their games) creates a barrier for Japanese businesses to be successful beyond Japan. Takeshi Natsuno’s solution for the Japanese mobile industry is to:
“focus more on software and must be more aggressive in hiring foreign talent, and the country’s cellphone carriers must also set their sights overseas.”
This is not a reasonable solution. Let’s pick it apart.
How can Japanese mobile hardware manufacturers focus more on software when they are tied to a schedule where they are releasing new models many times a year? The current staff can’t do anything more than what they do now, which is add a feature, add a new piece of hardware, and then recycle everything else. How can the existing developers, who do not make compelling software today, suddenly make compelling software tomorrow? This is not a solution.
Regarding “hiring foreign talent”, until Japanese phone manufacturers can pay globally competitive rates and can draw developers away from places like Apple, or Google, or Nokia, or Samsung, they can’t do what Natsuno suggests. I submit that this is a hollow solution- toothless.
For those who are in Japan, and know how domestic (i.e. not international) the 3 main Japanese carriers are, the thought of them effectively competing in the consumer space outside of Japan (especially KDDI) is ludicrous. Japanese carriers are competitive globally in a few areas, KDDI in submarine cable laying via their KOKUSAI CABLE SHIP CO.,LTD. (KCS) subsidiary, and NTT via Verio in the US and other telecommunications subsidiaries around the world, but these are not consumer-facing businesses. These are B2B.
So Natsuno’s “solution” isn’t really a solution in my opinion.
So what is a solution?
I don’t have a quick answer, because it is clearly not a simple problem. But I do believe that whatever future path for Japan’s software development, be it for mobile phones, or other devices, investing more in open source software development is a critical path towards a) getting Japanese developers to a global level of skill, and b) gaining prowess in software projects that will underlie the key devices of the future.
That Japanese developers already contribute around 15% of the Linux kernel code (self-link) is a great step, and Japanese businesses and universities should be encouraging more of their developers to join key OSS projects.
I welcome your constructive criticism and ideas on how Japanese companies can be more competitive. This is not an issue only in mobile software development- this is an issue across all of software development in Japan. Desktop software and Internet services all face the same problems.