Why Japan didn’t create the iPod

At the end of last year, there were a couple of articles about Japan’s failure to be a giant in the new digital age (Newsweek on Why Apple Isn’t Japanese, and there were some interesting comments in a blog response Japan is no longer a leader in Electronics). Unfortunately, the Newsweek article completely ignores the technical background which forms the basis for Japan’s current position in the digital age. In this post, I want to explore this technical background and show why business-types such as CEO’s and Newsweek readers really do need to understand the underlying technical issues of a problem.

8-bit Computers

The real start of the digital gulf between Japan and the western world started back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the first 8-bit home computers began to be released. One of the most important factors at this time was the complexity of the Japanese language. Put simply, an 8-bit computer with only 64k of memory simply does not have the capacity to edit Japanese. As an example, the first Japanese word processor to use the modern kana-kanji text entry system was the Toshiba JW-10. The JW-10 was a dedicated word processor with no other functionality. Released in February 1979, the JW-10 weighed 220kg and had a price tag of 6,300,000 yen (around $30,000). Here in the west, we could get similar capabilities with a $300 Commodore Vic-20 connected to a cheap 8-pin dot matrix printer. (In fact, you could argue that the Vic-20 offered better functionality). Before we continue with the history, let’s look at the technical details. (Skip this section if you don’t care).

Technical Details

There are two separate technical barriers for the Japanese language. The first is displaying the characters. For anyone who hasn’t used an Apple II, Commodore-64 or other 8-bit system, here is a screen-shot showing the cutting-edge 8×8 pixel fonts of 1982. For comparison, let’s look at a few common Japanese characters (these are ranked as the 35th, 64th, and 104th most commonly used characters, respectively):

議 選 調

It should be pretty clear that the Japanese are not getting away with 8×8 pixel characters on a 320×200 pixel screen. The NEC PC-9801 was one of the leading Japanese personal computers of the time, and offered a 640×400 display with 16×20 pixel characters. For all 6802 characters defined in the 1978 Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS C 6226-1978), we get 6802x20x16 bits = 265 kBytes of font data. (Compared to a mere 2 kBytes for 256 8×8 ASCII characters).

The second problem is the text entry process – whereby the 100 or so keys on the keyboard are used to select from the 6000 or so characters. In the days of telegraph, this was done using a 94×94 cell table written on a sheet of paper with all of the characters listed on it. The “kuten” codes were the coordinates of the characters in this table. The modern kana-kanji conversion approach involves entering characters phonetically, and converting based on dictionaries. The size of the dictionaries is directly related to how easy it is to enter text. For comparison, the conversion dictionaries on Windows XP are 36 MB. An 8-bit system is pretty much limited to the size of a disk.

Japan 1983

Back to 1983, and we can see the choices available to the Japanese consumer.

1) The Nintendo Entertainment System released 1983. 14400 yen (around $70). No keyboard. Japanese text is displayed as graphics stored in the game (only the font data for displayed characters need be included).

2) 8-bit computer with “katakana” Japanese characters. (Examples include the NEC PC-8001 series. The Mark II was released in 1983 was 123,000 yen (around $600)). Katakana is a Japanese phonetic alphabet only requiring 50 characters. Before the advent of computers, katakana was never used to write entire sentences. Computers that only offered katakana had no practical value to home users over the NES, except for computer enthusiasts. Although these computers are similar to the Commodore 64/Apple II in terms of technical capabilities, they are crippled in terms of functionality from the viewpoint of home consumers.

3) 16-bit computers with special hardware for displaying kanji. The NEC PC-9801 was released in 1982 and became the number one selling home computer in Japan. The first model retailed for around 300,000 yen ($1500). The ROM chips containing the kanji font data were extra (50,000 yen – $250), and only support Level 1 characters (around half of the number in the Japanese standards). Kanji input was by kuten code (i.e. you had to type in the hexadecimal number of the characters you wanted to display). The PC-9801 featured a standard resolution of 640×400, which would not be surpassed as a standard in the west until the release of VGA and Macintosh II in 1987.

4) Specialist word processing systems (i.e. the Japanese equivalent of an electronic typewriter). The JW-1 (grandchild of the JW-10 discussed in the intro) was released in 1983 for 500,000 yen (around $2,500).

So, 6 years after the Apple II first brought computers into homes in America, the Japanese still had no reason to buy a home computer unless they wanted to type by entering hexadecimal codes. Whereas computer manufacturers in the west could advertise under the premise of Why Buy Just a Video Game?, Japanese households were faced with a choice between $1500 for a world of hexadecimal nightmare compared to $70 for the world of Mario Bros.

Appliances vs General Computers

Throughout the 1980s, western countries saw explosive growth in general-purpose computing platforms, with even games manufacturer Atari switching from a console to a general-purpose computer (Atari ST). Japan, on the other hand, was deeply immersed in an appliance mentality of computers. Companies like Nintendo, Sega, and Sony dominated the games console market. And while American developers worked on desktop operating systems such as Windows and MacOS for general purpose computers, Japanese engineers were working on embedded operating systems such as TRON and T-Kernel for running embedded devices such as fax machines and car engine control systems. (As an aside, although the name TRON is not well-known among consumers, the number of devices running TRON is on par with the install-base of Windows).

The iPod

By the time the iPod was released in 2001, Japanese mobile phones were already e-mail and internet capable. Although personal computer numbers had grown, more Japanese were accessing the Internet through their mobile phone than through a computer, and Japanese manufacturers were locked into the appliance mindset. As an example, consider the Sharp J-SH51 mobile phone released in 2002 which also offered a built-in MP3 player and digital camera. Despite being one of the most advanced mobile phones in the world at the time, the J-SH51 could not be connected to a computer. So how did you get music onto your phone? Well, you took an analog audio cable and plugged it into the aux. out plug on your CD player.

In the west, the home computer was already being viewed as the central hub of the digital age. It was obvious that devices such as digital cameras and MP3 players would need connectivity with the home computer, and that people would transfer pictures from the digital camera to their computer, or would use their computer as the central storage for music files to upload to their iPod or other music player as needed. The iPod, for example, requires a home computer. Without one, there is no way to get music on or off the device.

In Japan, however, things were different. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the Japanese market at the time is to imagine that home computers did not exist. From this perspective, the direction that the Japanese electronics industry took makes perfect sense. Everything needed to be designed as stand-alone appliance. The basis for much of this was the digital memory card, particularly the SD card. Digital cameras and camera-phones stored everything on a memory stick, and offered DPOF configuration options for configuring printing options. Color printers went on sale offering SD card slots so that these photos could be printed without a computer in the middle. MP3 players took a similar turn, offering either analog cable connectivity or SD card slots for music transfers. New stereo systems also offered an additional SD card slot. The SD card was like the new cassette. Record stores even began offering machines that sold digital music directly stored on your SD card. 3G phone handsets were released in 2001, and Japanese telecoms envisioned a world where consumers would buy and download music directly onto their mobile phones. It all makes sense if nobody owns a home computer, and when the mobile phone is the dominant form of Internet connectivity.

The flip-side of all this support for stand-alone appliances that do not require a home computer is that the Japanese electronics manufacturers offered virtually no support at all for home computers. Many devices simply could not be connected to a PC. For those that could be connected, the support software was unfriendly and extremely primitive. Let’s take the SD card as an example. SD cards offered a ‘feature’ called SD Audio whereby music was stored protected by a DRM system. However, only one manufacturer ever produced USB card readers that actually supported this scheme. Even if you did manage to track down the lone card reader that supported SD Audio, you still can’t transfer music to your SD card. In fact, you now had to purchase a special version of RealPlayer (that’s right, you had to pay for free software).

Of course, this kind of situation wasn’t going to fly in the west, where everyone had a home computer. Even in the Japanese market, this wasn’t going to fly. By the year 2000, most of the technical difficulties facing computers in Japan in the 80s and 90s had been resolved, and home computers were becoming mainstream. Japanese consumers wanted PC connectivity from their appliances, and the iPod offered a well-designed, highly functional package. So Apple created the iPod, and Japanese electronics manufacturers were left to re-evaluate a new world where the home computer is the hub for digital media.

The Future

Japanese manufacturers are finally catching on and have started to offer PC connectivity. Most mobile phones now come with USB cables and software for transferring photos and music to and from a PC. While the latest music-capable phones still come with an SD card, support has been added for Apple’s MP4 format, and files can be transferred using a generic card reader. It’s difficult to say whether the misjudgment of the Japanese electronics companies was a one-off falter, or if it is the start of a trend. The Nintendo Wii is certainly a strong indicator that all is not lost, even if it is back on the Japanese strong ground of an appliance-oriented device.

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  1. Jamie Dalgetty said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    very interesting. i think this explains why minidisc players were so bad at managing digital audio why the netmd devices failed to make a dent in the mp3 market.

  2. Andrew said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    Apple’s MP4 format? Right…
    It’s not Apple’s format. Might want to correct that, lest more geeks like me complain to you about it. The only thing that Apple’s done to MP4 to make it theirs (IMO) is encrypt files on the Apple Store with FairPlay.

    Otherwise, I liked the article and the insight into the Japanese conception of technology. I was confused when a friend there had a ps2 (back when it was new) and a phone that did everything, yet didn’t have a PC. It makes sense now.

  3. Elmer said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

    I never thought that something so basic as an alphabet could have such profound effects. Nice story, thanks.

  4. xHydra said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

    Interesting and informative read.
    SO Japanese electronics domination ended with the Walkman ???

  5. ATT said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    who will need a gay IPOD when they can just connect to the net and stream anything they want from there home computers with there 100Mbps internet connections

  6. ATT said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

    forgot to add cell phones

  7. Ricket said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 7:18 pm

    From a linguistics point-of-view, many of the same things could be said about countless other languages of the world. Think about how many languages there are in the world with which you cannot use a computer (i.e. barring using some other language’s character set as a phonetic replacement).

  8. MoBe said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

    Incredible article. A really good insight on the country’s take on the digital age.

  9. Chris said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

    Ah, the joys of kanji. The more I learn about them, the more convinced I am that they are, overall, not a good thing. I found this article very insightful. Thank you for writing it!

    Time to go back to memorizing kanji. ;_;

  10. Ms. Anon E. Mouse, Esq said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

    MP4 is not an Apple format any more than MP3 is. MP4 was designed to be the next step after MP3, as soon as digital music players had more space to keep less lossy versions of music.

    Otherwise, fascinating article. Thanks!

  11. rio said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

    Having written about some of Japan’s quirks and interesting topics, I found this article very intriguing. I never thought of the idea of the standalone appliance vs home computer idea. Great story.

  12. Toneloak said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

    Hmm? I thought something like this for some time now. I didn’t know how to label it, though. This would explain a lot of my questions.

    Like why the whole country use western numbers.

    I also wondered if they had there own HEX.

    Thanks that was a cool article. Maybe, in two to five years things will even out more.

  13. The Dude said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

    The “language barrier” is not an isolated incident. If you look at the Roman Empire: they made contributions to every facet of society, law, warfare, architecture; everything except mathematics — all because their numeral system did not allow for complicated computations. Good luck computing this in Roman numerals: (42304-234*50)/23489 + 3/107.

  14. Yer Blog Sucks » The obligatory… said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 12:23 am

    […] I found an article giving a short history of Japan’s home tech evolution and how it differs with ours. It’s a fascinating article, and it is giving me a remarkable sense of perspective about my time with Sony back in the early 90s. […]

  15. Cyde Weys said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 12:33 am

    Loved the article, and thanks for the in-depth look at Japanese electronic culture. I knew it was different than ours, but I didn’t realize how little they used PCs, nor how much of a problem the huge kanji character set posed.

  16. Pierre said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 12:33 am

    thedude: no need to get so complicated… the Romans had no representation for “zero”…

  17. The Dude said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 12:42 am

    Pierre: you tell it like it is bro/sis!

  18. claude larochelle said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 12:44 am

    any discussion of the origins of the Ipod should mention that an hard-disk based MP3 player with the same functionalities was sold by Creative Labs 3 years earlier than the Ipod. The reasons it did not succeed like the Ipod were of a marketing rather than a technological nature. Creative Labs is Singapore based!

  19. Zach said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 1:59 am

    Yes, because the creative labs player was as easy to use as the combination of itunes and the ipod. All it lacked was marketing. *rollseyes*

    Marketing is nothing without the product to back it up, especially for a new product in an unestablished market. The ipod would have gone nowhere if it weren’t also easy to use and easy to load up.

  20. Softbatch said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 3:22 am

    RTFW for MP4…

    “MPEG-4 Part 14 was based on Apple’s QuickTime container format.[1] MPEG-4 Part 14 is essentially identical to the QuickTime MOV format, but formally specifies support for Initial Object Descriptors (IOD) and other MPEG features.”


  21. tom termini said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 3:49 am

    Apple, paradoxically, is hugely popular in Japan, and has been since the introduction of the Mac — because they could display Kanji! The Apple Store in Ginza is “…a cool, sleek designed store offering all of the latest products. The store is seven-levels, complete with a theatre which shows tutorials of apple products….”

    BTW, QuickTime 7’s native codec mpeg4 is more compliant than previously used versions

  22. linuxamp said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 3:57 am

    The article makes a very interesting point and while this specific example about digital music may be true I don’t believe that the Japanese were as digitally retarded as the article seems to imply. Besides music, I’d say that Japan has never been that far behind the other countries even with the major character encoding hurdle.

    As for the slow adoption of MP3, I think it’s in part be due to Sony. Sony tries to set their standard. Look at the HD-DVD Blu-ray war, memory stick, betamax… need I go on? Whether it was good marketing or nationalism (buy Japan) the Japanese listened to Sony and bought atrac/MD products and since there was little to no competition for those formats there was less incentive for innovation.

  23. Why Japan Didn’t Invent the iPod « Musings of the Great Eric said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 4:41 am

    […] Why Japan Didn’t Invent the iPod Posted in Culture, Society, Technology by Eric on May 5th, 2008 The answer is actually pretty interesting. […]

  24. Tom said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    What will happen next is we will discover that desktop computers are no longer needed. There may be a central storage in the home, but all our equipment from phones to TV’s to refrigerators will connect to it only to trade information.

  25. C. Maoxian said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    Nice article, but where do digital cameras fit into this picture (no pun intended)? I bought an Olympus in 1998 that came with a parallel port cable and PhotoAlbum software for Windows. Surely the digital camera guys were hip to the “centrality” of the PC from the very beginning.

  26. moom said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    The Dude: Only languages using Chinese characters have this problem. All others have reasonable sized alphabets and mostly can just use a relabled keyboard – for example Hebrew – though in that case you also need to reverse the direction of movement of the cursor, which is exactly what is done in Hebrew native operating systems. My wife has a blog where she writes in both Chinese and English, but she writes less and less in Chinese as it is such a hassle to select the correct character every time. This isn’t because she is speaking Chinese less, she’s talking all the time on the phone in Chinese….

  27. felipem said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    very informative 🙂

  28. Uhmmmm said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    It seems to me that the very title of this entry contradicts its contents. The major point made is that Japan was all about appliance-type devices, which the iPod is a perfect example of. The only reason given why the iPod wasn’t invented in Japan was its reliance on a PC to get music onto it. This is a minor implementation issue — there are plenty of other possible methods available to get music onto an MP3 player, some of which were mentioned (SD card, audio in jack, cell network). If anything, it rather argues that the iPod is exactly the sort of thing that would be invented in Japan.

    It’s also unfair to call it a “misjudgement of the Japanese electronics companies” to not support PCs which didn’t take off for another 20 years. I’d call it smart business to not go out of your way to support a technology that nobody in your target market is using.

    Other than that, great article. Very informative. *looks over at the Epson PC-98 clone sitting next to my PC*

    To those arguing that MP4 is not an Apple format: This is true, it is an MPEG standard format. But it is a container format which was based directly on Apple’s quicktime format, and Apple has done the most to promote its use.

    moom: Japanese input is sometimes still a pain, especially for unusual names, but it generally works pretty well today. And even on cellphones, which obviously have more limited resources to devote to text input than a full PC does, you should see the speed at which high school girls can type a text message. It’d put a lot of PC users to shame. There have even been whole novels written on cellphones in Japan.

  29. Ryan said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    I fell victim to the ‘pay for free software’ deal with SD audio. Bad deal for consumers.

  30. james said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

    Very interesting. I have always believed that because of computers, english would always be the predominant language on earth. this provides the background for my belief.

  31. Thank goodness apple is not Japanese said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

    The Japanese are known for making high quality electronics.

    Unfortunately the iPod is not the best quality device out there; errors and breakages are common, battery life is less than impressive in this day and age and on all levels there is a product that does whatever the iPod can do but much better.

    I’m not saying iPod is a bad product. What makes the iPod special is it’s design and the marketing behind it. Its these things that turned iPod into a household name not the product specs or quality.

    So to be perfectly honest if Japan had produced such a (technically) low quality product I would have been quite disappointed.

  32. Richard said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

    The Japanese language is a variant. It also applies to for instance the English language.

    There are no solid objects, yet the language Japanese and English language do create the impression in the mind that there are, and in doing so there are manifestation of these so called ‘solid objects’.

  33. Richard said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

    Information regarding “Shaped by language” is available on:

  34. Richard said,

    May 8, 2008 @ 8:50 am

    Actually there is an ‘earth’ (illusion) because of the language, in that Earth can perceived as a solid object in certain languages. But not all languages.

    Japan is a variant of Indonesian for ‘Nippon – Nihon’ meaning something like ‘Sun Origin’ (Land of the Rising Sun).

  35. links for 2008-05-08 « regeneration links and tweets said,

    May 8, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    […] GT!Blog » Why Japan didn’t create the iPod Interesting article on how the Japanese writing system influenced the design of computers in Japan. (tags: Japan Japanese Kanji language technology computers computer ipod apple computing linguistics) […]

  36. Gray Lensman said,

    May 8, 2008 @ 11:37 am

    I remember a Canon stand-alone Japanese word processor in Denver in the mid-80’s. The keyboard was really complicated, with multiple nested shift keys and many character keys. I watched the person use it but he did most of his business on the telephone.

  37. RedWhite&Brooklyn said,

    May 10, 2008 @ 5:28 am

    ATT: “from there home ”

    Yeah… like spelling lessons, genius.

  38. Adrian Havill said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    Two minor sticking points: the 94 × 94 kuten matrix for Japanese character sets has no direct connection with the telegraph; it has a direct connection with ASCII, which has 94 printable characters.

    By choosing a 94 × 94 matrix, Japanese characters could be easily transported and converted onto protocols designed for 7-bit ASCII.

    Also, it should be pointed out that early versions of western 8-bit computers, much like the Japanese half-width katakana brethen, had no value for serious language-based applications like word processing. Why? Because early 8-bit computers, including the Apple II and Apple II+, did not support lower case.

  39. Steve said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

    I owned a Creative MP3 player before the iPod. The iPod made it when Creative and others didn’t because the iPod was a quantum leap in usability – like many things Apple, the iPod was uniquely intuitive while Creative was just a CD player (same size, same controls) with a hard disk. iPod succeeded because it is better.

    A question on the language thing. If language is so limiting, why can the cell phone be so successful as a a text based chat device and internet device? What can a phone do that a PC (or a thin client terminal) couldn’t do years earlier? I suspect that the difference is that the young users of the cell phone found a different way to communicate and the phone was just the tool of choice for those creative kids. If the same creativity had been applied to use of the PC it too would have been viable.

  40. Martin F said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

    Great article with an interesting point of view. What you missed is that the first MP3 player that appeared in the market was the MPMan F10 by Saehan Information Systems from South Korea. So, Newsweek might ask, why Apple is not Korean?

    Anyway, it is getting a bit silly to put a national slant on technology, when we all go to colleges that teach more or less the same stuff. I mean, why did Newsweek want to ask the question in the first place?

  41. Scott R said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

    Interesting story. Thanks.

  42. Brian said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    The “initial” success of iPod (as opposed to its becoming a “mainstream” brand, after the release of iPod mini / nano), I believe, had more to do with its strong emphasis on metadata (which, in turn, was possible because of its close tie-in with PC counterpart, iTunes), than with its design / marketing (again, at least initially); iPod offered a very effective way of enjoying a large song collections, without having to manually compile many different playlists (which could become quite tedious and frustrating).
    On the contrary, other disk-based MP3 players at that time were conceptually identical to the flash-based ones, only with larger storage space: in other words, they were basically external storage devices, which happened to be able to play media files stored on them.
    Of course those players did support MP3 tags as well, but (a) they didn’t provide as much incentive to “tag” your songs as iPod (which not only practically required properly tagged songs to operate, but also provided a unique way of utilizing tags, a.k.a. Smart Playlists) and (b) there was (arguably) no other media organizer software that was as intuitive and easy to use (in terms of tagging a large collection of songs) as iTunes, let alone well-integrated with the player.
    In short, I think one of the major differentiator for iPod was its “hub” a.k.a. iTunes; so yes, I agree with this article in the sense that the difference in people’s attitudes toward “home computer as a hub” (which was, at least partly, resulted from their historical / cultural differences) played a certain role in keeping the success of “Walkman” from being repeated in digital generation.

  43. Alpay Kasal said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Thumbs up for including the Commodore Vic-20 and Commodore64 as a part of computing history. C= is often left out in discussion.

    For those that were talking about numerics together with linguistics. A bit of trivia, Zero was invented by the muslims, along with a whole mess of complex mathematics I loved/hated as a physics major. Our modern number system is an Arab-Hindu one. words like Cipher, algebra, algorithm are arabic. The greeks (mostly Euclid) introduced alot of arabic math to the west.

    and… A written language barrier can indeed have a huge impact on the way things go for a “connected” society. Constantine’s method of “networking” disparate peoples thoughout his empire was to grab holy men from the far reaches, lock them up in a room in constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and said “you guys aren’t coming out of there until you rewrite the bible for everyone to follow”. there were many factions of christianity at the time, and many did not get along, still in it’s early day with countless culty offshoots. Well the rewrite of the bible gave everybody in the empire one book to read from and gues what… a language standard was born – people from far and wide had a new way to communicate. it forced an evolution on linguistics that promoted a greater community in a sense.

    fast fwd to the basis of this story and it is interesting to make such connections.

    I loved my Creative nomad… Apple won with usability, human interaction built into the design… but technically speaking, the creative mp3 players always had a broader dynamic range and let you do things like remove the battery or memory card for replacement. I HATED apple for forcing an ipod owner to replace their whole player if the battery started to suck with age. so wasteful and greedy.

    Alpay Kasal

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