TOKYO — Japanese mobile phones are a gadget lover’s dream. They double as credit cards. They can display digital TV broadcasts. Some are even fitted with solar cells. And yet, for all their innovations, Japanese-made handsets have had little impact overseas. They account for just a sliver of a global mobile phone market dominated by the likes of Apple, Research In Motion and Samsung.
But now the Japanese phone industry hopes to go global — by adopting Google’s red-hot Android mobile operating system. “We have the technology to compete in the United States,” said Naoki Shiraishi, who led software development for a new line of Android smartphones from Sharp, the largest Japanese cellphone maker. “It’s finally time for Sharp phones to go play in the major leagues.”
Sony Ericsson, NEC and Kyocera are among the other Japanese handset makers also betting on Android as their path to international sales. While Android was initially overshadowed by the popular iPhone from Apple, its user numbers are now soaring. In 2010, global sales of Android phones reached 67.2 million units, ahead of iPhones, which sold 46 million units, according to the research company Gartner.
And Sharp, clearly hoping to edge onto Apple’s iPad turf, has introduced in the United States a lineup of tablet computers running a version of Android — the sort of competition Apple is hoping to stay well in front of with new versions of the iPad like the one it introduced Wednesday in San Francisco. For the Japanese phone makers, cashing in on Android’s popularity will mean learning some new skills, like marketing, while unlearning some old habits, like paying too much attention to the hardware and too little to the software.
Because Japan’s phone industry remains highly fragmented, no company so far has been large or savvy enough to make a strong overseas push. Instead, handset makers have long been content to serve as suppliers to Japan’s three largest mobile networks, which command a market of more than 100 million users, most of them on advanced 3G networks.
And in their hardware fixation, Japanese manufacturers have tended to bog down their handsets with clunky software platforms and fenced-in Web services that do not emphasize downloads of third-party applications.
That has put them at odds with the trend in much of the rest of the world, where attention has swung to devices like the iPhone, which runs software much as an ordinary computer does and lets users download apps from independent developers.
In fact, the success of the iPhone in Japan — together with Apple’s popular App Store, with hundreds of thousands of applications for download — has opened eyes.
“Japanese companies have been so pioneering in many fields, but they have failed to build a global business” of handsets, said Gerhard Fasol, chief executive of Eurotechnology, a Tokyo firm that advises companies on global mobile and telecommunications strategy. “What you need is a global infrastructure,” Mr. Fasol said, “and Japanese handset makers have nothing.”
Global scale is what the Japanese hope to build with Android.
Certainly the price is right: Google offers Android free to manufacturers. And Android has caught on since its introduction in 2007, as a growing community of software developers has written apps, sold via Google’s Android Market. It took a while, but Japanese handset makers are now rushing to introduce Android devices, each married with cutting-edge technology. That includes Sony Ericsson, which dabbled with other platforms like Symbian and Windows Mobile for its high-end Xperia smartphones, but has used Android for its latest models.
And just last week, NEC introduced what it said was the world’s thinnest smartphone. At 8 millimeters thick, equivalent to about four stacked nickels, its Medias N-04C runs on Android and also comes with an electronic wallet function, digital terrestrial television and a five-megapixel camera. Although the phone is for sale only in Japan for now, NEC is planning an overseas push, focusing first on Mexico and Australia. Another Japanese manufacturer, Kyocera, is planning soon for the United States release of an Android-based smartphone that comes with two screens, capable of running separate apps at once.
Sharp, for its part, intends to start with the fast-growing Chinese market, although officials say they also intend to bring phones to North America. Most global operators are preparing to use advanced LTE networks, which could make it easier for the Japanese phones to work on networks anywhere.
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