The iPhone 7 might not, on the face of it, be the most exciting upgrade ever — it’s the first time Apple’s used the same basic industrial design three years running, with a more dramatic overhaul set for next year’s model.
But if you live in Japan, it’s a much more significant update to the line. That’s because a couple of new features have finally brought the iPhone up to parity with what customers here have long come to expect — and that’s important, since Japan is one of Apple’s largest and strongest markets. China understandably gets much of the world’s attention for its rapid growth and potential, but while Japan’s population is a fraction of the size, a far greater proportion of people are able to afford the iPhone.
Apple now has higher marketshare in Japan than almost anywhere else in the world, but this wasn’t always the case. When I first came here in 2008, the iPhone had just launched. The benefits of the device were obvious, but Japan’s mobile ecosystem had already advanced in a different direction, and Apple had a tough time making the iPhone fit in — simple flip phones really did have quite a few advantages. Here are some of the reasons it was a pain to use the iPhone in Japan at first, and how they’ve almost entirely been solved to the point where it no longer feels like a compromise.
- Mobile payments: This is a big one. Apple Pay launched in Japan this week, more than two years after its initial US rollout but well over a decade after Japanese carriers started supporting a mobile payments system called Osaifu-Keitai, or "Mobile Wallet." Osaifu-Keitai uses Felica technology, the same early form of NFC found on public transport passes, store registers, vending machines, and so on. It’s a standard feature on pretty much any Japanese phone, and so Apple had to do some work to make Apple Pay viable in Japan — local iPhone 7 models come with Felica chips so that you can charge your iPhone with credit and use it as a train pass, for example. Apple doesn’t usually create region-specific variants of products, so it was clearly seen as important to help the iPhone integrate with existing Japanese infrastructure.
- Waterproofing: Another feature that's been commonly found in Japanese phones over the past decade or so, it's only recently that smartphones sold in the West have started to use water resistance as a selling point. Samsung has been the most notable example so far, but Apple now markets the iPhone 7 as being able to survive the occasional accident. For Japanese customers, it's one more reason not to consider the iPhone a downgrade.
- Emoji: It's hard to imagine given how emoji have taken over the world, but even though the characters are a Japanese invention, they weren't available on the iPhone at launch — a huge dealbreaker for some. And users outside Japan had to rely on hacky apps to enable the feature, which of course over time has proven useful and culturally influental to a wider audience.
- A camera that can focus on QR codes: Yes, this was actually a big deal. QR codes felt like the fabric holding Japanese society together in 2008, and my iPhone 3G’s camera was utterly incapable of recognizing them — I ended up using a case called the Griffin Clarifi with a built-in macro lens to get discounts at clubs, restaurants, and so on. My previous flip phone, on the other hand, had a little switch by the camera to switch it into macro mode.
- Infrared communication: Okay, so Apple never actually added an IR receiver to the iPhone, but it didn’t need to in the end. While that was the most common way of trading new contact details when I first came to Japan, these days it’s been replaced by ubiquitous messaging app Line, which lets you quickly add someone IRL by popping up… a QR code. At least the cameras have autofocus now.
- TV: This is another checkbox that Apple never bothered ticking for the Japanese market. You’ll still find digital TV tuners on most Japanese phones today, letting you watch terrestrial broadcasts wherever you are. But this feels like a feature that was a lot more useful in the days before ubiquitous LTE and YouTube — carriers do offer wireless TV tuners alongside the iPhone, but I don’t see too many people using them.
- Strap loop: One area where the iPhone remains truly disadvantaged is its lack of ability to have cute keychain-style straps attached — almost every Japanese phone has a loop in the case for this purpose. And the iPhone 7 actually makes matters worse by omitting the headphone jack, which many enterprising accessory manufacturers had used as a port for ornamentation. But, well, you can always just use a case.
After some years of dalliances with other platforms, I've now owned every iPhone since the 5S, so these things clearly haven't been important enough for me to ditch Apple. But it is remarkable to note how over time the iPhone has equalled or bettered the technological Swiss-army-knife approach that Japanese manufacturers long applied to their handsets. Mobile payments and waterproofing in particular were legitimate features that made me pine for Japanese phones, and now here they are right on my iPhone.
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