Indeed, Japanese makers thought they had positioned themselves to dominate the age of digital data. But Japanese cellphone makers were a little too clever. The industry turned increasingly inward. In the 1990s, they set a standard for the second-generation network that was rejected everywhere else. Carriers created fenced-in Web services, like i-Mode. Those mobile Web universes fostered huge e-commerce and content markets within Japan, but they have also increased the country’s isolation from the global market.
Then Japan quickly adopted a third-generation standard in 2001. The rest of the world dallied, essentially making Japanese phones too advanced for most markets.
At the same time, the rapid growth of Japan’s cellphone market in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave Japanese companies little incentive to market overseas. But now the market is shrinking significantly, hit by a recession and a graying economy; makers shipped 19 percent fewer handsets in 2008 and expect to ship even fewer in 2009. The industry remains fragmented, with eight cellphone makers vying for part of a market that will be less than 30 million units this year.