Business

Japan's 'Galapagos phones' making a comeback

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Smartphones have spread rapidly in Japan in recent years, but there still seems to be strong demand for feature phones, or so-called “Galapagos” phones, according to recent data.

The domestic mobile phone market has been described as the “Galapagos Islands” because handsets come with a variety of functions unique to Japan (the real Galapagos Islands are famous for the endemic species that inhabit them).

Tokyo-based MM Research Institute, a market research body, said last week that year-on-year shipments of feature phones, which typically open like a clamshell and come with physical buttons, increased in fiscal 2014 for the first time in seven years.

Japan saw a total shipment of 10.4 million Galapagos phones, up 6 percent from fiscal 2013. By comparison, MM Research Institute said 27.4 million smartphones shipped in fiscal 2014, down 7.2 percent from the previous year.

The research firm said Galapagos phones are still popular because the monthly charges are cheaper and they provide enough functions for light mobile Internet users who don’t need high-spec smartphones and a variety of apps.

MM Research Institute also said some smartphone users seem to have returned to using feature phones, which contributed to the shipment increase.

The carriers are aware of the trend. NTT Docomo Inc. and KDDI Corp. have announced a new feature phone that is powered by Google’s Android operating system.

Android is usually installed on smartphones, but is being applied to new clamshell Galapagos phones, so that compatible smartphone apps can be used with them, Docomo said.

“There are users who just need (to make) telephone calls and (send or receive) emails. It would be best for us if they change to smartphones, but we’ve heard many voices from users (who want Galapagos phones) . . . we will keep providing them, ” Docomo President Kaoru Kato told a news conference on Wednesday.

Because smartphones consume more data, monthly data plans are usually more expensive than with feature phones, so a larger number of smartphone users means more revenue for the carriers.

Docomo, which has the largest share of subscribers in Japan, said about 45 percent of its subscribers are Galapagos phone users.

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