Image: Takeshi Natsuno
Yoshikazu Tsuno  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Japanese cell phone industry pioneer Takeshi Natsuno says that for all his country's technological prowess, it would never have developed something as innovative as the iPhone.
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updated 8/21/2008 11:33:39 AM ET 2008-08-21T15:33:39

One of Japan's top cell phone innovators says that for all his country's technological prowess, it could never have produced the iPhone.

Japan's telecommunications industry stifles the kind of creativity that is so apparent in Apple's Web-surfing phone, says Takeshi Natsuno, who developed Japan's first Internet-linking cell phone service "i-mode" in 1999, when such systems were still groundbreaking.

"This is a great device," he said, affectionately touching a black iPhone 3G during an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. "This kind of device cannot be produced by Japanese manufacturers. Never."

While Japanese cell phones offer similar features as the iPhone, they lack its easy-to-use touch panel and slick design, he said.

Natsuno, 43, who quit top Japanese mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo three months ago, expressed disenchantment with this nation's phone industry, which he said was dominated by stodgy conservatives, who lacked the charisma and creative sensibilities of a Steve Jobs, chief executive at Cupertino, California-based Apple.

Japanese society is very tech-savvy, and people routinely use cell phones to buy things, exchange e-mail, do restaurant searches, watch movie downloads and play video games.

Natsuno's i-mode — a key part of Japan's mobile technological innovation — became a hit when the rest of the world was using cell phones for old-fashioned chatting. Natsuno also led the foray into third-generation mobile phones, as well as "wallet phones" that allow electronic payments.

Yet throughout his interview at the Tokyo office of Dwango Co., a mobile service company where he serves as adviser, Natsuno, grumbled about the shortcomings of Japan Inc.

Sporting a pale jacket, no tie and long hair, Natsuno scoffed at the stereotype Japanese businessman as boring in their obsession with technology for technology's sake.

"They have to take a risk," said Natsuno. "To do that, clear direction, clear vision, clear leadership are necessary."

The iPhone, introduced in Japan last month, has drawn long lines although it still makes up a tiny portion of Japan's 115 million cell-phone market, and even Natsuno acknowledged he carries around a DoCoMo handset because the iPhone lacks some handy Japan-style features such as the wallet phone.

Change needed quickly
Natsuno, now professor of policy management at Keio University, warned that Japan's telecommunications business is doomed unless it can change quickly.

Older Japanese technology had compatibility problems with other global standards, but new third-generation technology allows new products to be used outside the country, and can be more easily adapted to overseas products.

He believes Japan has only a few years left to take advantage of global business opportunities before rivals, including Nokia of Finland and South Korean Samsung Electronics, dominate and make it harder for Japanese mobile businesses to expand globally.

Still, possibilities for innovations are boundless, according to Natsuno, who has written two books on mobile technology.

Imagine a "virtual keyboard" popping up like a scene from a science fiction movie, or artificial intelligence in a handset that can talk with its user, he said, his enthusiasm clearly visible.

And what counts is everyday life, not technological prowess, said Natsuno.

"I'm proud of making my idea a part of Japanese people's life," he said of "i-mode."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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