March 10, 2011

Japanese mobile industry ponders Galapagos Effect

Japan has a super-powerful mobile ecosystem worth billions, brimming with futuristic technologies, business models, and experiences that the world wants to emulate.

But is it a model or an anomaly? And does it only exist because it was incubated in isolation, and is it now so unique that it cannot be replicated overseas?

This is known as the Galapagos effect, and its gone mainstream in the media and especially as a metaphor for what’s happening in the Japan mobile industry.  Not that this talk is new. It has been thrown around since Japan broke onto the world scene as the top mobile innovator 10 years ago.  Japan was basking in the hockeystick-shaped success curve of its mobile content business. It scoffed at foreign equivalents, and instead strutted its own fabulous home-grown mobile OSes and flashy phone devices for the world to envy.

Then there were several flopped attempts by Japanese players  to “take the business global,” notably by NTT DOCOMO, which tried at great cost to launch i-mode services all around the world.  Okay, not all have been total flops, but the most part they did not succeed. Does anybody remember DOCOMO’s $10.b investment loss in Cingular and the rise and fall of m-mode? Maybe they were a little to far ahead of the curve, back in…2002…

But now that the world outside has caught up technically and commercially, people are asking again if there is going to be some meaningful migration or expansion of all this know-how out of Japan.  This question was framed as  the Galapagos effect last summer in an interesting article by one of the chief architects of Japanese mobile Internet, Takeshi Natsuno, who really knows what he is talking about. More recently, the same sort of story was partially refried by the New York Times to talk about Android.

In any case, the Galapagos factor is not necessarily all bad, even if it is for real.  If it didn’t exist, we would have no idea what was coming.  And its actually kind of trendy. Sharp even used it t0 brand their newest 3D-screened mobile phone, the GALAPAGOS 003SH9 (which incidentally is driven by the alien Android platform). And if you are lucky enough to live on Galapagos, you can enjoy the latest Galapagos technology,  like eyeglasses-less 3D mobile phones, a year before everybody else.

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