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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Using an iPhone in Japan - where it falls down

If you're not interested in the iPhone, don't bother read this - just click here instead.

I got my iPhone 3G about four hours after arriving in Japan. Being gadget boy, I'd wanted it since launch day, but it would have been a bit daft to get it on a two year contract in the UK. Also, they don't come cheap, and I couldn't justify getting one just because I wanted one.

But here I am starting a new life in Japan, and in need of a phone.

Buying the iPhone in Japan

The initial rush seems to have subsided, although stocks are still limited: we called our local Softbank store (having first phoned the Apple store in vain), and checked availability. They had 1 available, 16GB black.

The sign up process is pretty lengthy. You have to read through a few pages of Apple's terms and conditions, then donate a kidney. It can be difficult for foreigners to get them as there's a credit check, and a two year contract (they don't want you skipping the country before paying all the monthly instalments). We decided that *Twinkle* would buy mine - far simpler :-) If you don't have someone willing to buy one for you, credit card is the way to go.

The plans cost anything between about 5000 yen and 9000 yen a month, + phone calls: this pays for the device itself and the data plan. I don't like making phone calls (especially not at 20 yen a minute, which I discovered after a total of 3 hours on the phone) so that's fine for me, I'm just in it for the data. Calls to other Softbank / Vodafone users are free at certain times.

You are given a Softbank (IMAP) email address. Personally, I like to use my own domain email address (...[at] so I've configured Google Apps to forward a copy of incoming mobile mail to Softbank (who then send an alert to the phone), and manually set the outgoing server to Gmail SMTP.

Once you have the device, be prepared to fall in love. As Steve would say, it is absolutely gorgeous. I mean, really, it is the most beautiful piece of technology I have ever had the privilege to take care of. And the best thing of all? It Just Works. It's incredibly easy to use - I've not yet had to refer to the manual. It's simple enough for even a four-year-old to understand - yesterday my little nephew was able to figure out how to switch between applications in a couple of minutes.

If you are an existing Mac user setting up your phone couldn't be simpler - just plug it in. iTunes will sync all your contacts, email accounts, calendars, to do lists, photos, music, videos, just like that. It may be a little more complex for Windows users but they should be used to frustration anyway.

In the past I've always found it a pain to put data on mobile phones, and was also afraid that if I lost the phone, I'd lose my data. Here, all the data is safely stored on your computer / in the cloud, then synched to your iPhone either over the Internet or when you plug it in.


I won't go through all my apps because I'd be here all day. Just to mention one of my Japanese favourites - Ekitan: the entire national train timetable, live updates on delays, a cache so you can refer to searches when there's no signal, history of previous searches (for repeat journeys). And all with a lovely user-freindly interface. Yes, other phones can do this too - but not whilst oozing sex appeal.

Other favourite apps are Safari, Google maps, Twitterrific, Air Sharing, Koi Pond (the fish eat your finger), the classic iPint (beer on tap - a good party trick), midomi (sing to your iPhone or let it listen to a song being played in a bar etc and it will tell you what the song is, with a link to buy it), NetNewsWire (RSS feeds), MyDelicious, Cro-mag, Facebook, Evernote.

The GPS really is very handy. I use it to find places in Tokyo - watch myself on the screen as a little blue dot walking down the road. Also, my to-do list uses it so that I can tell my iPhone to put tasks in order of their distance from me (write to bank = 0m, buy eggs = 0.5km, buy ink = 4km, get post office book from *Twinkle*s parents' house = 32km). This is handy when one has a very long to-do list! (and is very nerdy).

The web browser, Safari, is fantastic. Unlike most phones in Japan you're not restricted to made-for-mobile sites, with this you can view any website online (er, provided they're not flash-based!). I've used this countless times over the past week when on the move. There's so much information out there - it's great to be able to access it when I need it and not have to wait until I get home.

I also like the fact that it has decent built-in speakers - I use it to listen to audiobooks just before I go to bed.

Where the iPhone falls down in Japan

Rather than just go on about how good the iPhone is (there's plenty of sites dedicated to doing so already), I thought I'd point out some features - or lack of features - that are specific to Japan.
  • My biggest gripe comes as the result of the iPhone being designed for a country that uses SMS, not email, for texting. Japan does use SMS, but it will only work with people who are on the same carrier as you. Here, email is dominant. Apple have tried to address this by having Softbank send an alert when you get new mail, but this is only a message on the screen - no vibrate and no sound. I hope they rectify this soon.

  • The mail program doesn't support eMoji, those little pictures people love to put in their texts. They just get scrambled. If the picture is core to the meaning of the message this can be a problem - you can read the message in Safari at the touch of a button, but it's a bit of a drag. 

  • The packages are way too expensive.

  • Visual voicemail doesn't come as standard. I think it's another 300 yen a month.

  • Battery life. Ok, so that's not limited to Japan, but it is still the iPhone's biggest 'issue'.

  • The camera is probably the most pants camera to have been mass-marketed this year. Emergency use only.
It's early days though, with it only having been launched here last month. What a lot of users are doing is using it as a secondary device - with all my family here on AU (not Softbank) I'll probably go that way myself.

At least the 3G network is reliable - it really is super fast. You rarely find yourself waiting excessively for it to load. I also love the fact that it has Wifi - at home (or at friends' houses, or where's there's public wifi) it automatically switches from 3G to the wireless broadband connection, thus not costing a penny in data transfer.

he introduction of 'Genius' with the latest version of iTunes is very welcome, and over the past couple of days I've been delighted to find some 'new' music that I never knew I had. Great stuff.

I find it really exciting to be able to use these new devices, and also to think where they might go in the future. I won't be buying any more gadgets for a long time - perhaps next year I'll get a Nikon DSLR with video function and in-built GPS (in the D700 line).

Incidentally, a good side-effect of my having an iPhone is that I spend a lot less time in front of my Mac. Being able to deal with emails on the road when I have a spare few minutes here and there means I don't come home to a pile of stuff to wade through, and consequently don't get distracted by browsing the internet - so the iPhone is pretty good for our relationship too! 

Anyway, it's just flashed up a reminder that I need to go to the toilet. According to the GPS system, the loo is located about 4 metres south-west of this cushion, and I have a date to be there by 12.34pm. Best be off.

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OpenID UltraBob said...

"you can read the message in Safari at the touch of a button, but it's a bit of a drag."

How do you do that?

16/9/08 15:31  
Blogger Joseph said...

As I mentioned, my mails are routed through gmail, so I just have a bookmark for gmail on my home screen. Technically it's three button pushes!

16/9/08 15:54  
Blogger Joseph said...

Nice to make your acquaintance by the way Ultrabob, just listening to your podcast. I once had the pleasure of doing a study on the US base in your town. :-)

16/9/08 15:58  
Blogger Joseph said...

Correction: apparently visual voicemail isn't supported by Softbank, although Apple had advertised it pre-launch.

16/9/08 16:28  
Anonymous Mark said...

Hi, visual voicemail certainly is available on Softbank as I've been using it on my iPhone since launch day. I'm not sure if I'm paying extra for it however, as I just went in on launch day and signed everything they gave me so I could get the phone faster ;-)

In the 'voicemail' section you get a list of people that have called and you can touch their name to listen to the messages over and over. No calling a number and listening to voice prompts. Yay!

16/9/08 16:49  
Blogger Joseph said...

thanks for correcting me on that Mark.

I'll check it out when I start work, could be very handy, and of course far sexier than your usual voicemail :-)

16/9/08 18:18  
Blogger JKietlinski said...

What app do you recommend for QR codes reading? I was a little annoyed that they don&t bundle one with iPhone in Japan, although QR codes are so prevalent ...

2/10/08 22:58  
Blogger Joseph said...

I did install a qr reader, and I'm afraid I forget the name ...but soon uninstalled it as the the camera seemed unable to take close-ups that were clear enough for the app to read the codes. I'd be interested to know if anyone else has been able to use the iPhone as a at reader, and in which case what the secret is.

3/10/08 07:29  
Blogger Doug said...

Above Mark wrote, "In the 'voicemail' section you get a list of people that have called and you can touch their name to listen to the messages over and over. No calling a number and listening to voice prompts. Yay!"

I just got my iPhone 3G yesterday from Softbank and have the extra 315 yen/month visual voicemail contract.

I understand, though, that checking voicemail does incur per-minute costs. Is that true?



2/2/09 17:39  
Anonymous Shaun said...

Hi Joseph, great photos fella. I am visiting Japan in October 09. I have a 3G OS3.0 iphone where my left hand used to be?!

I think my hand is still there somewhere? Am I able to buy a sim card to insert when I arrive and join a network?

31/7/09 07:23  
Blogger Joseph said...

Hi Shaun,

My understanding is that you cannot use a Japanese (softbank) sim in a non-Japanese iPhone. The people I know who have come over to visit from the UK have just made do with Wifi access and used Skype /email.

Have you looked at the discussions over at ?

31/7/09 07:55  

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