Japan’s ‘Galapagos phones’ making a comeback


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.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Informative article.

  • 151E

    I’d be curious to see a demographic breakdown of the numbers.

    • Clickonthewhatnow

      Hard to do in a situation where many people have their smartphones paid for in part or in whole by their employers.

    • Inter Idoru

      It would be interesting to see demographics overall. I have friends in the age range of 28-35 who either do not want a smart phone or returned to a flip phone. They use the flip and either a tablet for roaming online activity ~ or they only use internet at work and home. A few said they felt the smartphone was too addictive and they spent too much time avoiding actual conversation to be on LINE and twitter, that they gave it up.

  • Bernd Bausch

    How much is a smartphone subscription? 5000 Yen or more per month? Contrast that with the 1000-1500 Yen of a cheap “dumbphone”, which still allows you to do email and even look at the occasional web site. And of course make phone calls. If you add the fact that more and more places offer free WiFi, or WiFi for several hundred Yen per month, it’s no surprise that they still represent 30% of the market.

  • Johnny LoveFive

    Hey, Japan, welcome to 2003!

    • J.P. Bunny

      Nothing wrong with simple. My flip open phone makes calls and sends / receives text messages from other phones. Nothing else needed.

  • GBR48

    Putting Android on feature phones defeats the object of choosing them over smartphones. The last thing you want are a plague of Google apps that you never use but cannot get rid of, persistently updating themselves.

    There’s nothing wrong with the traditional ‘feature’ flip-phone. It comes with a load of features that work well in Japan, including a quake warning, payment facilities and (often) 1Seg TV. Unlocked ones can take a foreign SIM and work happily in any country with a compatible network, so tourists can take their 1Seg recordings home with them. They are great for Jdrama fans (as they have featured in heaps of them) and far more exotic than the ubiquitous iPhone.

    For reliable calling and long battery life, use a feature phone (either a Japanese flip phone or a Western candy bar). They are also good for kids. Android phones can download a lot of apps that can cause concern to parents. Feature phones are a little more restrictive, leaving parents to concentrate on ‘not contacting strangers’, ‘not unwisely sending photos’ and cyber bullying.