April 24, 2015 3:49 am JST
End of an era

Japanese companies to stop making 'Galapagos phones'

TOKYO -- Japanese manufacturers from 2017 will end production of conventional mobile phones with custom operating systems, bringing an end to once-pioneering technology that led to the world's first Internet-able cellphones.

     The operating systems and other core technologies of conventional devices, used primarily for phone calls and texting, are developed jointly by handset makers and wireless carriers. With the rise of smartphones, development of those operating systems have become a drag on their earnings.

     Manufacturers will continue producing handsets that look and function much like conventional phones, due to the enduring popularity of flip phones with keypads among older consumers, but these will be loaded with Google's Android operating system.

     NEC currently supplies conventional phones to Docomo. It will stop developing new models in March 2016 and end production in March 2017. This will mark a complete withdrawal from the mobile phone market, as it bowed out of the smartphone business in 2013. For now, the company will continue to service products it has already sold.

     Other manufacturers including Fujitsu, Sharp and Panasonic also will switch to the Android OS. With smartphones accounting for a growing share of the global mobile phone market, these companies concluded that developing operating systems and chips for conventional phones makes little sense. They also aim to cut development costs by switching completely to smartphone technology.

     Docomo will gradually end sales of conventional phones and step up sales of Android devices. Rivals KDDI and SoftBank are expected to follow suit. KDDI launched in February an Android phone made by Sharp, and Docomo has also decided to release multiple models this year.

     For now, carriers will continue services such as NTT Docomo's i-mode, which lets users browse the Internet on conventional phones.

     The spread of smartphones has left older-style devices almost entirely confined to Japan, where they have been dubbed "Galapagos phones," evoking an isolated environment housing unique species.

     Japanese electronics makers and mobile carriers have ramped up joint handset development since the late 1990s. In 1999, Docomo rolled out i-mode, the world's first service allowing mobile phones to connect to the Internet. Japanese telecommunications and electronics companies were pioneers in the field.

     But the situation changed after Apple released the iPhone in 2007 and Google worked with phone manufacturers worldwide to launch Android devices from 2008 onward. Smartphones exploded in popularity. Conventional-phone specialist Nokia sold its handset business, while Japanese companies were forced to restructure.

     Japan's shift toward smartphone technology will mark another step in the field's division into Apple and Google camps.

(Nikkei)

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