Japan: We're Losing to Apple, and Here's Why

When IT consultant, author and developer Isseki Nagae titled an October 11, 2011, post on his blog “Why Japanese manufacturers keep losing to Apple, in the words of Steve Jobs” [jp], he probably knew he would draw some flak for it. Many of those who came to the post through Hatena, where it was bookmarked over two thousand times, no doubt expected to find some insights from the former Apple CEO on what is wrong with the Japanese electronics industry. With the iPhone finally making major inroads into the local mobile phone market, and Samsung stealing the spotlight from Japan's legendary gadget-makers, these insights are much in demand.

The post, though, wasn't exactly what its title seemed to imply. Instead of the words of Steve Jobs on the topic, the post was an opinion piece by Nagae, supported in part by things Steve Jobs had said in other contexts.

iPhone in Japan (by Flickr user nobihaya)

iPhone in Japan (by Flickr user nobihaya)

Nagae sets the backdrop:


About five years ago, Japanese manufacturers — and particularly consumer electronics manufacturers — hit a point where they simply could no longer compete with overseas competitors. The only real exceptions to this are car makers such as Toyota and Honda. Companies like Sony in contrast, which dazzled the world with the Walkman, and others in the IT-related and consumer electronics sectors, face a dire situation today. While there are a lot of discussions about this online, I don’t think anyone would deny the extreme weakness of Japanese electronics manufacturers in marketing. Sharp’s Galapagos disaster [ref] is a good example of this.

理由として挙げられる最大のものは、「素人の顧客の意見を聞きすぎる」ということにあるのではないかと考える。いい方を変えるならば、素人のユーザーの意見に左右されるのはいい加減にした方がいいということでもある。まあ日本のメーカーの経営者自体が素人に近いので、こうした資料が無いと開発にゴーが出ないのかもしれない、というのが最大の問題ではあるのだが・・。本田宗一郎やソニーの盛田昭夫さんが懐かしい今日この頃 です。いまの日本のメーカー経営者ってみんなサラリーマンで、出世が上手くて上がってきた人ばっかりだもんね。

The main reason for this is that these companies put way too much emphasis on the views of the average consumer. The views of consumers should not guide decision-making. But executives at Japanese manufacturers don’t know better themselves, so they won’t give the go-ahead on anything unless they’re sure of what consumers want. What happened to the days of Soichiro Honda [founder of the Honda Motor Company] and Akio Morita [co-founder of Sony]? Executives at Japanese manufacturers today are nothing but salarymen [ref] — every one of them got there by working their way up the corporate ladder.

昔から大手広告代理店などでは「リサーチ」「顧客調査」「ヒヤリング」などのもとに多額の予算をとって調査をかける。実は自分もけっこう参加したことがあ る。大手代理店にはユーザー集めてミーティングさせて、メーカー担当がこっそりそれを見るマジックミラー張りの部屋まで用意されているし、世の中には女子 高生を集めて商品企画するような会社もあると聞くが、これで本当にヒット作を企画出来るのかと言えば、自分もジョブズも全く必要ないと思っている(神と自 分を同じ扱いですみません)。実際、ユーザー集めてのミーティングの場にいたことも何度かあるが、たいしたアイデアは出たことがない。

Large advertising companies have long invested huge sums of money in conducting studies based on research, customer surveys and interviews. I myself have participated in such studies. At the big advertising agencies they round up users and market to them as reps from the manufacturing companies watch, sometimes through one-way mirrors. I’ve heard of some companies that go so far as to base their product planning on the opinions of schoolgirls. Will this type of planning seriously result in a hit product? I don't think so, and (not to put myself in the same category as a god, but) neither did Steve Jobs. I’ve actually been to many of these marketing focus groups, and I can tell you that no great ideas come of them.

Nagae then cites two well-known quotes from Steve Jobs. In the first, Jobs responds to a question about market research for the iPad (of which there was none):

It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.

The second, from a 1998 article in BusinessWeek, echoes the same sentiment. Jobs explains:

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

Nagae concurs:


Exactly. You can try all you want to research what consumers want, make exactly what they (think they) want, and they will go and buy something completely different. That’s what’s happening with Japanese consumer electronics today. Try asking these consumers what kind of mobile phone they want.

絵文字が打てる、メールが片手で打てる、ワンセグは絶対欲しい、 防水がいい、おサイフ機能は必須、いろんな機能が付いていると楽しい・・・ETC・・・結果が世界に通用しないガラケー戦隊ですよ・・・

They’ll say they want emoji [ref], they want to write email with one hand, they absolutely must have 1seg [ref], oh and the device must be waterproof, and work as a digital wallet, and they'll ask for all kinds of other neat functions… and what you get is another forgettable Galapagos gadget that the world will just ignore.

そう答えた消費者が、ワンセグもなくお財布もなく入力もしにくいiPhoneに殺到しているのである。これは何故か。つまり、素人の客に聞いて、彼らがど んなものが欲しいのか忠実に作っていく方法は、まったく無意味ということなのだ。素人が考えつかないようなものでないと売れない。

Consumers who said they wanted these things then flood to buy their own iPhone, which doesn't have 1seg, doesn't work as a digital wallet, and doesn't allow easy data input. It's a complete waste of time to listen to consumers and produce exactly what they want. If you want to make something that sells, you have to come up with something that the average person could never even conceive of.

Later, he draws parallels:

つまり、本当の商品企画というものは、独善的に「ユーザーに思いつかないような斬新なコンセプト」が閃めくような人しかできないということです。ラーメン 屋でもケーキ屋でもパソコンメーカーでもこれは同じなんです。日産が復活したんだって、絶対売れないといわれて生産中止になっていたフェアレディZをカル ロス・ゴーンが再開発したからじゃないですか。Facebookだってザッカーバーグが独善的に機能を詰め込んでいまのかたちになったから世界を支配し た。極論をいえば顧客の意見なんて聞く必要は無いのだ。顧客にスゲエ、と言わせれば良いだけの話です。

The only people who are really capable of product planning are those with the insight needed to imagine new concepts that the average user would never even think of. It’s the same whether it’s a ramen [noodle] shop, a cake shop or a PC manufacturer. Nissan made its comeback when Carlos Ghosn redeveloped the Fairlady Z — a car which had been discontinued because people said it wouldn’t sell. Facebook would never have dominated the world the way it did without the features that Mark Zuckerberg crammed into it. This may sound extreme, but there’s really no need to ask the user for their thoughts at all. If at the end they say it’s amazing, then that’s all that’s important.

Responses to the post were mixed. KoshianX:


For anyone in software development, this really rings true. If you build exactly what the customer wants, you get a useless system.



What nonsense. Do products reflect the opinion of average consumers? Did anyone actually say they wanted the 1seg? These discussions aren't related to why Apple is winning. They're winning because they've managed to produce loads of people who will gleefully recite the “gospel of Steve Jobs”.

And raitu:


Look, it's not just Japanese manufacturers, it's all manufacturers that are losing to Apple. I'm getting sick of these Japanese who love nothing more than to put their country down.

But perhaps the most interesting thought in the post appeared in the comment thread, where Nagae sums up the situation with a comparison between Sony 30 years ago and Apple today:

その昔、ウォークマンの時代はウォークマンのステッカーを貼ってる車もいました。今でもAppleのステッカーを貼ってる車はけっこういますよね。でもい まやソニーや東芝のステッカーを貼ってる車なんて営業車以外いません。「自分はこれのファンである」とユーザーが堂々と公言できる作品を創っているかどう かで考えれば、間違いなくAppleにメタメタにやられていると思いますよ。

Way back then, there were cars with Sony stickers on them. Today, there are cars with Apple stickers on them. But try finding a car with a Sony or Toshiba sticker today — only company cars driven by sales people have them. Can your company inspire people to proudly proclaim themselves a fan of your products? When you think about it that way, it's pretty clear that Apple is wiping the floor with these companies today.


  • The success of Apple is real easy to understand. Windows was too complicated. That’s it. Most people don’t want to think or read instructions. The iPod is like a garage door opener. Press the button. Doesn’t get any easier. That’s all it is. Apple has no competitor. Think about it, only a decade ago most people had never used the Internet! Even the name “Apple” has a childlike simplicity to it.

    Right now in Linux I have 6 browser tabs, 6 Geany tabs, 5 terminals, 9 workspaces, 3 Skype sessions, a spreadsheet, time tracker, and a mindmap all running the same time. There’s no way to do that on a smartphone or an iPad. Eventually the attraction of simplicity will fade as consumers realize they need more advanced tools for their survival.

    • Jon

      And all grandpa wants to do is see photos of his grandchildren on his iPad. Maybe a video or two.

      To paraphrase Steve Jobs, the PC is a truck. You just don’t use iPads for the kind of computing you described. And what interest does Grandpa, or even the entire non-geek population, have in Geany?

      • Trey

        Jon, you’ve got it exactly right. There is a segment of the population that will never need the “advanced tools for their survival” – many people can get by just fine without knowing how to change the oil in their car, build wooden shelves, or even make a more complicated meal than a freezer dinner.

        Even as an “advanced user,” I don’t want to deal with everything all the time, and that’s what Macs are catering towards. A “just work” functionality. I don’t need to SSH into a machine that will only be used for checking email, reading books or websites, and browsing Facebook. I don’t need to multi-task all the time when I’m at home, and I don’t need a time tracker when I’m sitting in my living room.

        Apple products aren’t necessarily for the most advanced users. But even then, with the exception of enterprise development, a large segment of development is done on Macs. Probably comparable to, if not more than, Linux boxes for development.

        Apple products might not for everyone – that’s fine. It might be perfect for most people. If it’s for everyone, it will be for no one.

        • Jonathan

          On the other hand, I ssh into my mac all the time. And I clone disks, use rsync. The tools are very sharp and powerful when you need them.

          I do think the iPad is dumbed down just a tad too much, but the balance of the iPhone is more or less perfect.

          It’s sad that the WebOS stuff didn’t get more traction. I loved the look of the card-based WebOS.

    • Daniel

      I can do it on a Mac though. And that’s well integrated with my iPad and iPhone. It’s really a path of least resistance. Switching from Linux to Mac has been a sigh of relief lasting for six years now. I just caved in basically. Now going back to Linux I see a lot have improved but the lack of cohesion and perfection annoy the hell out of me now and I always turn back. I really didn’t knew I needed that until I got used to it.

    • JD

      “Eventually the attraction of simplicity will fade as consumers realize they need more advanced tools for their survival.”

      Typical reaction of power users who don’t understand the diversity of consumer needs.
      The iPad is clearly and voluntarily not designed to be a developer workstation. It fulfills other needs, and that’s why it’s selling like hot cakes.

      Now ironically, it also does most of the things you are talking about: browser tabs, terminal, skype, spreadsheet, mindmaps (workspaces are a pure desktop paradigm, it make no sense to point the lack of it in iOS). Perhaps it’s not as easy to use all of those programs at the same time, but once again, that’s not why tablets are made for.
      Microsoft has been trying for years to put full Windows environment in tablets, did they ever succeed?

    • Jose A

      You can do this with a Mac in 2 additional OS, including Linux.

    • gorgeousninja

      No, actually most people can see that by trying to do so much you are in fact accomplishing very little. Turn it all off. Finish one task move onto the next. Streamline. You will actually do more. Just because something is capable of doing 20 things doesnt make it the right way. Your mindset sems very 90’s. Keeping it simple is one of the reasons why Apple is so popular.

    • bewlay

      The only thing simple here is your fundamental misunderstanding of what Apple products are.

  • […] [toread] Japan: We’re losing to Apple, and here’s why · Global Voices – […]

  • JD

    “Did anyone actually say they wanted the 1seg? These discussions aren’t related to why Apple is winning.”

    Good point. My guess would be that the 1seg came more from a push by advertisers than from a real consumer demand. I would add to this article that technological innovation in Japan is not only driven buy consumer studies, but also by advertising and media lobbies. In both cases, that rarely produce good devices in the end.

    “They’re winning because they’ve managed to produce loads of people who will gleefully recite the “gospel of Steve Jobs”.”

    And here it comes, the Godwin point of every Apple-related discussion: Apple consumers are brainless idiots. People thinking this are fooling themselves, and that does not apply only to Apple success. Not only it’s condescending but also plain wrong, consumers are not stupid. The fact that you dislike a brand shouldn’t harm your capacity to analyze the reasons of its success.

  • Steve

    People want what they want. What they want is basically divided up into four categories. I will not quote them here, but Steve Jobs was right, up to a point. What if people just want to have fun on their phone? Would you not sell them a “fun” phone? What if they only wanted to do serious business stuff on their phone? Would you not sell them a serious business phone? Dumb questions, right?

    Sure, most people want to be cool, so the “gospel of Steve Jobs” is going to lead them into the “light”. What if you could know what people want just as much as they themselves know? It would be impossible NOT to sell this.

    Gary Halbert said there was little difference between a scam artist and a real marketer. He was one of the world’s greatest marketers.

  • Just in case anybody missed it, there’s a discussion on Hacker News about this post which is getting a lot of comments: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3127697

  • The clever side of the iPhone is that it hasn’t – almost – any features at all at the beginning: it starts all clean, easy, friendly. Then you can make it more and more complicated, your way, by installing applications. The same way as you would do it with a very popular blog system (the one used by Global Voices), WordPress. Those products attract us by their design based on simplicity. I owned a Japanese phone in a past, and maybe there were awesome features on it which I would have loved. But I didn’t have time to spend on finding out which I liked, and which I didn’t. Let me pick the ones I want first! The future is to those who can design such products, which can adapt themselves to our needs, in the most easy and efficient way.

  • Al Brown

    I read an article several months back that described how difficult it is in Japan for young people to break through in Japan. Old employees and old companies are kept around much longer than they would be in a more dynamic economy.

    Perhaps losing a big part of the generation that fought World War 2 had some upside for Japan. Maybe it gave younger entrepreneurs a chance to reshape the economy.

  • JD

    In Japan, the idea that customer is king and supplier is slave is all-pervading.
    It takes a strong leader (Koizumi, Ghosn, Son come to mind) to show everyone the direction. Many managers in Japan are good at managing people, have good personalities, and technically capable. However many not willing to take bold actions for fear of getting blamed if things go bad.
    On the other hand, Apple’s company culture encourages risk-taking and heated discussions among employees regardless of position. I hope it can continue.

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