It could be a Twilight Zone episode. Or a brave new world, where Luddites have quickly become rulers of the universe. Or a gigantic editorial misprint. But the fact remains in that in a seemingly perverse twist to the explosive growth rate of smartphones in the world, flip phone shipments in Japan -- yes, remember those, like the mega-selling "Star Tac" or the "Razr", which we all thought were uber cool about a century ago? -- have outstripped those of smartphones.
Moreover, these are not small numbers. According to data from market researcher MM Research Institute, flip phone shipments grew by 5.7 percent to 10.58 million units, while smartphones fell 5.3 percent, to 27.7 million. It's a deliciously contrary sort of futuristic scenario that the likes of Isaac Asimov would have been happy about.
In the land of ubiquitous vending machines that disgorge everything from live rhinoceros beetles to underwear, that has tiny, coffin-sized sleeping pods for the budget-conscious late-night urban worker, and that has popularised motels that offer cuddling services, this may not seem that strange a phenomenon. But when something like flip phones achieve such a large proportion of phone sales in the country, while smartphone sales dip for the second year in a row, you know that it's more than just a trend seizing the imagination of the sophisticated, fashion-conscious Japanese consumer.
In fact, there are some very good reasons for the existence of the gara-kei, Japanese for Galapagos Phones, a somewhat derogatory term for something that wouldn't see the light of day outside of Japan. One reason is the exorbitant cost of smartphone fees in Japan, amongst the highest in the developed world. Factor in decades of zero GDP growth and deflation where the Japanese have become conditioned to cost cutting on the home front, and a flip phone suddenly makes sense, especially if you're content with just basic services such as email and calling. Also, smartphones have achieved saturation at over 98 percent, so the prospects for growth in this category are bleak, especially when renewals are not that high thanks to their durability.
One company that is capitalizing on this trend is struggling Japanese electronics outfit Sharp, which has decided not to compete on the world stage with the likes of Samsung and Apple in the smartphone arena (wise decision), but instead has become the purveyor of one of the hottest new devices in the Japanese phone market -- the retro-future Aquos Phone Hybrid 007SH, which apparently is not just any old flip phone, but also an Android in disguise with a 180-degree rotating touchscreen, a robust 16MP camera, and a 3D-capable display. Meanwhile, the country's biggest carrier, NTT Docomo, has just come out with two new feature phone models.
Entrepreneurs take note: At this rate, maybe the dial-up or the telegram could stage a triumphant comeback in the country.