It was the mid-2000′s. I was in an editorial panel of a then-popular mobile magazine and we were doing damage control, staring face to face with some pretty angry marketing people from Panasonic. The reason: we had basically told readers that their phones sucked. And it didn’t help that they were our advertisers.
Once upon a time, everything was turning Japanese in the tech industry (cue The Vapors here… what, you don’t get it? Then you’re not old enough to have lived through the Eighties). Sony, Sharp, Sanyo, Panasonic, JVC, Kyocera… consumer electronics were practically being dominated by Japanese brands.
Sony, for one, was the dominant force for personal devices, with the Sony Walkman being the principal driver of portable tech. And you won’t see a single American brand in the typical electronics menu. Much less a Korean brand.
Today, however, with a different menu of tech items on the plate, Japan is hardly anymore in the picture. In fact, have you heard of a new Japanese brand lately for consumer electronics? I don’t think so.
I think that much of the reason for Japan’s decline in tech visibility lies in the way-too-rapid movement of consumer preferences towards new technology categories, to which Japanese companies were simply not fast enough to jump into.
For instance, in the 1990s, Japan still dominated the following tech categories:
Today, however, these categories have all but been wiped out and the growth sectors are coming from:
And laptops are a declining market. So really, on all the major growth sectors of tech, Sony is the last one standing for Japan in the global marketplace’s preferred brands.
The one exception: digital cameras. Japanese brands have always been standouts for photography, with Canon and Nikon leading the way. And these two firms have successfully managed to bridge the transition from analog to digital. So the market leaders would look something like:
So whatever magic juice Canon and Nikon had been drinking could be a model for other Japanese brands, assuming it’s not too late. The same goes for Toshiba, which was able to more or less successfully transition from the days of vacuum tube TV sets to today’s LCD-based lifestyle.
It’s interesting to note how Japanese brands are the preferred brands for photography. Even mighty Samsung, despite its growing market presence, could not quite gain sufficient street cred for image quality just yet. Bottom line: if you want to take great pictures, you buy a Japanese brand.
The answer may lie in how easily a brand can migrate its core technologies. For instance, even during the analog era of photography, Canon and Nikon stood out through their aggressive investment in the electronics that augmented the photography. And it was these investments that eventually paid off because they became the takeoff point when cameras evolved towards the digital format. Plus it didn’t hurt that by then they were making killer lenses.
Contrast that with Kodak, which was once the dominant brand for casual photography. They did eventually transition to digital, but it was halfhearted and perhaps too late for the company, mainly because their dependence on the chemical-based film technologies that sustained them for a hundred years was so severe that it seemed to cripple their transition.
Toshiba on the other hand was also able to migrate soon enough, and much of this was due to their early investment in the new LCD technologies that would eventually wipe out clunky CRT displays. So their movement to laptops paid off for home TVs.
Sony also was a relatively early adopter for the LCD era, and its Bravia TVs are still going strong as a result.
But the decline of Japanese dominance really began with the cellphone. Blame Nokia for this. Somehow, the Japanese brands were simply not quick enough to produce phones that engaged the market.
And this brings us back to Panasonic, whose marketing people once glared angrily at me. The sad thing about it was that we were right. Their phones did suck, mostly from a usability perspective. Sadder still: they refused to admit it. Back then, Nokia was gaining in popularity because their phones were so easy to use. Panasonic phones? Trying to figure them out could be a frustrating experience (which we wrote about). And this was probably what led to the demise of so many Japanese brands, Panasonic and all, from potential growth areas in tech: there was the need to develop the core technologies… and then there was the ease of use.
And this in turn brings us to the final nail in the virtual coffin: Mario Brothers aside, Japan isn’t particularly known for software. Japan brands made their mark on hardware, but software has never been a strong point. I suspect that it’s because of Japan’s cultural isolation: it’s hard to figure out what’s most useable for the world at large when you essentially have your own way of doing things. Unfortunately, we are now living in the age of software. Consumer electronics are now all about usability. Heck, even Sony had to resort to using Android (which certainly isn’t Made in Japan) in order to break into the smartphone market.
Here’s hoping that the last big Japanese holdouts — Sony, Canon, Nikon, Toshiba, et al — will last. In fact, here’s hoping that some new Japanese brands show up in the horizon soon.
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