Japanese consumers are among the most mobile-savvy in the world: They were shopping, banking, and gaming on mobile phones long before consumers in other nations. The Japanese mobile ecosystem used to be unique; telecom operators specified to Japanese handset manufacturers the design of services to implement on multimedia phones. This is changing in an app world.
Indeed, the mobile market is opening up quickly to the smartphone app ecosystem. While Japan is a mobile-centric society, smartphone adoption has lagged behind other major markets. Many international brands launched their first mCommerce initiatives in Japan several years ago, but the market subsequently disappeared from the innovation radar due to the US-centric smartphone app ecosystem. But this is changing. It is time to take another look at Japan to uncover how the nation is combining innovation and scale as its market embraces smartphone apps.
More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to work with NTT DoCoMo to introduce i-mode — the mobile multimedia service in France. At that time, Japan was clearly two to three years ahead of the rest of the mobile world. The Japanese market — and more specifically, the i-mode business model — is rumored to have inspired Steve Jobs to launch the Apple App Store. After that, Silicon Valley became the new source of innovation and inspiration for mobile marketers. Now that the app ecosystem has come full circle, marketers should again consider mobile marketing in Japan, benefiting from a more open ecosystem to distribute their apps and engage with Japanese customers. I recently spent a full week in Japan, and it is fascinating to see the relationship people have with mobile phones over there.
There are lots of lessons to learn from the likes of Rakuten, Line, Felica, Softbank, or NTT DoCoMo and from a mature ecosystem of mobile contactless and connective-tissue technologies.