Remember way back when Japan was the land of mobile milk and honey. Tales of cell phones with built-it TVs and cameras were the envy of the world. Then Apple stepped in and brought the whole thing crashing down.

Now, as I stand on the train surrounded by people poking at little plastic rectangles I conceal my once luxurious Panasonic P706ie in shame.

To support these once mighty phones, an extensive infrastructure was set up across the country. However, this entire network couldn’t be exported easily and was confined to the islands which made them. They were garapagosu-ka (Galapagos-ized).

Japanese old-style mobile phones are increasingly being called garake – short for garapagosu keitai (Galapagos mobile phone). The name is an obvious reference to the Galapagos Islands, a place where evolution seems to have occurred independently with the rest of the world. In the same way, Japanese mobile phones had become trapped on these islands and are now under attack by alien species.

These flip-top phones, formally yet ironically named “feature phones”, are now coming to thought of as about on par with the white brick that Zack from Saved by the Bell used to haul around.

A teenage girl who uses a feature phone may be called a mada-gara-joshi (still Galapagos girl). So, with all the current social stigmas surrounding these phones, do they have a future?

Tadayuki Shinozaki of the MM Research Institute says they do.

“One could say that feature phones have died out completely, but smartphones currently only make up a little over one-third (37.7 percent) of total subscriptions. These phones still have a significant presence in the market.”


In Japan most smartphones are saddled with monthly fees high enough to dissuade casual users. Also, people such as reporters and salespeople who frequently use their mobiles at work have been returning to Galapagos phones for the sake of a more reasonable battery-life.

According to Mr. Shinozaki, feature phones’ more focused set of functions make them enduringly attractive to a number of demographics.

“They’re easy to carry for the elderly. There are panic buttons for children to use. These special needs are conveniently and affordably filled by feature phones.”

In spite of being cheap and handy, everyone has to change phones eventually and the ever-growing population of smartphone users shows no sign of letting up.

[For all of 2012] 70 percent of the people who bought mobile phones bought smartphones. By the end of fiscal year 2013, smartphones and feature phones should have equal market shares. Still, I predict that from then on feature phones will maintain a 30 percent share.”

2012 Sales

That seems to be a reasonable estimate. As time progresses, more and more middle-aged people will inevitably make the switch once their current contracts come to an end.

By and large seniors will likely stick with what they know and continue using their Galapagos phones. With the aging population of Japan, that’s significant piece of the market. However, it’s only a matter of time before that changes too.

Battery technology for smartphones will improve to meet the needs of professional users over time as well.

In the end, Galapagos phones could hold onto the niche of children and the elderly who need cheap, easy, reliable and durable phones for some time to come. Yet, just like Lonesome George, they won’t be around forever.

Source: President Online (Japanese)
Top Image: RocketNews24

Saved by the Bell video via YouTube