iPhone faces first test in fickle Japan market

TOKYO – In many countries the latest version of the iPhone represents the epitome of high-technology but the picture is different in Japan, which got its first-ever taste of the iPhone last Friday’s launch.

Consumers here are used to advanced handsets that handle digital TV, e-money and replace their subway and rail cards for travel, so the reaction the iPhone — which does none of these — will get in Japan is being watched with interest.

The original iPhone didn’t go on sale here because the country doesn’t use the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard on which it was based. But with the new phone’s embrace of the WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) standard, it’s been snapped up for sale by Softbank, Japan’s number three carrier with about 19 million subscribers.

Buzz was building ahead of the launch. “When the iPhone was announced, I watched Steve Jobs’ keynote and thought it looked like a great product and I’ve wanted one ever since,” said Hiroyuki Sano, a student from Nagoya in central Japan.

After travelling for five hours to Tokyo, he set up camp outside the Softbank shop in the trendy Harajuku district at around 6a.m. on Tuesday, three days before the launch. Softbank’s announcement that it will begin selling handsets from 7 a.m. on Friday prompted about 20 people as of Wednesday lunchtime to queue outside the shop in the hope of securing an iPhone.

It has long been a challenge for foreign companies to penetrate the discriminating Japanese market, but Apple has proven its mettle with the iPod, which became the top music player in Japan upon its release there in 2006. Japan remains Apple’s top international market.

As a loyal Apple user, the arrival of the iPhone 3G sits well with 35-year-old Ryusuke Hiratsuka. “The interface and style are unbeatable, plus I don’t have to carry my iPod anymore — everything is integrated,” he said. The biggest deterrent for him isn’t the hardware but the hassle of switching carriers and losing discounts he has built up with his current carrier, KDDI. “The amount of money I’d spend monthly for owning an iPhone is equivalent to the phone bill of my wife and I,” he said.


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