updated 01:45 am EST, Wed February 13, 2013
Foreign-made handsets combined top 50 percent for first time
Apple has managed to nab the top spot in Japan's feature and smartphone market rankings for the first time, reaching 16 percent market share in the calendar fourth quarter and 15 percent share overall for 2012. The change reflects Japan's growing diversity of offerings, particularly from foreign brands rather than local companies such as Sharp and Fujitsu, the former of whom was toppled from a six-year run as the top handset provider by Apple's growth.
Much of the credit goes to Apple's carrier partners in Japan, Softbank and KDDI. Both saw having the iPhone as a strategic advantage over the island nation's largest carrier, NTT Docomo, and promoted the iPhone heavily. Docomo responded with campaigns that emphasized foreign-made Android phones, the first time it had aggressively marketed foreign brands. As a result, the Japanese market had more than 50 percent of the available share split between foreign-owned companies (primarily Apple, Samsung and LG) for the first time.
Docomo reported a loss of over 40,000 subscribers back in November and blamed the shift largely on the iPhone 5. It was the first drop in subscribers in over five years, and one of the largest declines as well. Meanwhile, the other two carriers pulled in hundreds of thousands of new customers each due to excitement over the iPhone 5, which was released in Japan on the same day as in North America and other key markets.
The rankings represent a fundamental shift in consumer tastes away from "smart feature phones" (also known as "low-end smartphones") with local-based proprietary OSes usually created by either the carrier or phone manufacturer. This allowed an unprecedented penetration by foreign brands, an idea considered impossible just a few years before, reports Counterpoint Research, which reported the findings. Previous companies such as Nokia and Microsoft had tried -- and failed -- to gain traction in the previously-isolated handset market in Japan.
In the rankings for the year overall, Apple just edged out Sharp and Fujitsu, which essentially tied for second place with 14 percent of the market each. Sharp actually edged out Apple in the first half of the year, but lost ground in the second half (Apple had first taken the lead spot from Sharp in the fourth quarter of the previous year). Apple CEO Tim Cook has frequently mentioned Japan as a key market alongside the rest of the "Asia Pacific" (APAC) region which includes China, though Japan currently has only seven Apple Stores, the last of which opened more than a year ago.