My Japanese iPhone Sucks, Wah

After the servers stopped crapping out, and the line of people waiting to buy subsided, I finally got my Japanese iPhone. Anybody on the Internet already knows about the hardware (yep it's great, despite a few remaining standout flaws, which have already been hashed to death).

But there are a few Japan-specific bits of suck:

  • In the USA, AT&T kinda sucks. SoftBank, the Japanese carrier, sucks substantially more.
  • The kludged-up ??? "implementation" is as shitty as could possibly be designed--literally worse than nothing--and in Japan this feature is very nearly as important as the ability to place a call. Apple should have postponed the iPhone Japan launch rather than shipping without this capability[2].

Let's take them one at a time:

The carrier, SoftBank, turns out to totally suck. I was hoping that in this small and dense country, any major carrier would work, at least in metropolitan Tokyo where I am. Not so. More often than not, I have one bar on the SoftBank iPhone, even though my Docomo phone has full signal. In ???. In ???. In fucking ?? and ???. These aren't exactly hicktowns in the boonies. The killer is that, where I am staying right now in downtown Tokyo, I can use the phone in the main room but the call drops if I walk into the bathroom to piss while talking (multitasking, har). Pretty fucking lame. Lame enough that I probably will have to carry a Docomo phone in my computer bag as a backup. This problem will not affect everybody, of course, but will affect a substantial number. Not a single one of the seven friends I've visited so far has good SoftBank receiption at home. (It does work in train stations and other metropolitan public places.)

But the carrier problem is small potatoes. The implementation of ??? (mobile-to-mobile mail, extremely widely-used in Japan, kind of like SMS on steroids) is literally jaw-droppingly, staggeringly fucktarded and is the deal-breaker in Japan. No fucking wonder SoftBank has a "no-returns-even-if-it-doesn't-work" policy here. Because it fucking doesn't work, by any Japanese standard.

Its suck-level is such that SoftBank had to send out a text message to all iPhone users a couple days after the release, which basically said "Notice: The iPhone kludge for ????is tremendously awful. We humbly and deeply regret this inconvenience."

We knew in advance that it was going to kind of suck, in that the iPhone would not be able to handle the full character set used by ???. The "full character set" includes ???, which are proprietary vendor-specific icon characters specific to the Japanese cell phone industry, and have only been recently even standardized across carriers. On the iPhone, these show up as black squares. Even though they are extremely widely-used, this problem is not necessarily a full-blown dealbreaker, but it is annoying. Not being able to send messages containing these weird icon-characters is a flaw I can deal with, but receiving messages like "Hey, Mason, do you want to ? ? tonight? If so, ? ? @ 8pm. ? ?!!" is pretty annoying and useless.

However, it is totally fucking unheard of for a recent-generation phone to simply be unable to send ???. Okay, not quite unheard of: Motorola's last attempt at a smartphone in Japan utterly failed in this market, precisely due to this design flaw.

But the iPhone can't do it either, and for most people, that relegates it to PDA duty: something you carry in addition to your phone. Because even if you have an iPhone, you still need a real phone to do ???, which credible estimates suggest is actually four to ten times more common than placing an actual voice call here nowadays.

SoftBank/Apple's "solution" is basically just to give you an extra-lame self-deleting IMAP account and rely on the fact that ??? has always been able to be kludge-bridged to Internet email. You've always been able to send PC email to people's phones. But, you cannot send messages to other people unless they have specifically enabled receiving mail from your address in advance. The default setup for ??? here is that phone-to-phone email (???) works, but PC-to-phone email must be specifically enabled by the receiver, on a per-domain basis.

The stupid extra-limited IMAP account that SoftBank includes with the iPhone is interpreted by the system(s) as PC email. So your messages won't get through until you call the person to whom you wish to send mail, apologize for you unusual technological limitations, and ask them to kindly take a moment to add you to their ??? whitelist. (If they can figure out how.)

And you have to do that, individually for each recipient, because consensus etiquette here is that in many situations it is slightly rude and intrusive to call and interrupt somebody to convey a simple bit of info that could just as well be sent via ???.

So, am I going to keep my iPhone? Well, sure; I am currently working as a fucking professional iPhone software developer. But even I have to keep my Docomo phone. Are all those initial buyers going to keep their iPhones? Well, a lot of them will, because once you buy an iPhone there is absolutely no way out of the 2-year contract, even if 24 hours later you realize it is a gleaming, shiny, good-looking, almost-perfect steaming turd of a phone that doesn't actually quite work here in Japan.

But are the brisk sales going to continue? I doubt it, unless Apple fixes the ??? problem. Word is already spreading about the problem.

It is something that could be addressed with a clever piece of software[1]--something some friends of mine would probably even be happy to help out with. But the terms of indentured servitude that apply to all "legitimate" iPhone developers actually prevent fixing this problem--Apple has stated that third-party developers may not write email applications. So only Apple can fix this problem. Will they?


[1]: Actually, it could be mostly fixed with some simple collaboration between the network operators here, too. The ??? problem would remain, but if messages from the SoftBank-supplied IMAP accounts were simply considered as phone-to-phone mail by the other providers (NTT and AU), then the show-stopping aspect of the problem (your ??? not getting through to the person you send it to) would be ameliorated. But I presume the other carriers, or NTT at least, probably balked at making special accommodations to help a competitor sell phones.

[2]: The Apple iPhone's inability to send ??? is fucking up the reputations of both device and company -- not only with the people who bought it, and then subsequently discovered the problem (they're shit out of luck, per SoftBank's (lack of a) return policy) -- but also with people who hadn't even really cared about the iPhone yet. One colleague, to whom my job requires that I be able to send ???, complained "Hey, what is with you Apple otaku freaks?! You are the third person I know who bought the stupid ApplePhone, and for whom I now have to do this [add-to-whitelist] procedure! I know you guys make love to your Apples or whatever, wonderful for you, but why should I have to suffer?!" This was more friendly banter than a serious complaint, but it was clear that his first impressions of the iPhone are a.) that it sucks, and b.) people who use it are a bit annoying.