Galapagos Tech

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The other day I talked to my friend Ryo who lives in Japan and uses an iPhone. In this he’s not alone – iPhones are, in Japan as much as anywhere else, a cool gadget to have. Yet, here using this particular product has some different implications than elsewhere: In Tokyo, Japanese smartphones have many features and functions that their equivalents abroad don’t have. They serve as metro pass, to buy things at vending machines (which you also can do with the metro pass), replace credit cards. In other words, they’re the key to pretty much every transaction you have in any given day. In order to use an iPhone, my friend had to start carrying a wallet again, which he hadn’t done for a long time before.

Japan is full of these technologies: By themselves, or rather in their particular environment, they’re quite advanced. They’re a bit like a glimpse into the near future, but on some odd tangent, or parallel track. Yet, take them out of this ecosystem and they stop to work, as they’re not compatible with the hardware and software stack anywhere else.

The term used for this phenomenon in Japan: Galapagos Tech. It only exists in this particular, singular context and nowhere else.

I love the expression; hadn’t heard about it before. It’s quite a powerful notion. And as my Japanese friend put it: We (Japan) are good at invention cool stuff, but we’re bad at marketing and exporting it abroad. There’s something here, but more importantly this may serve as a reminder of the importance of interoperability and standards in technology. You don’t want to be the subject of study, but little use. You don’t want to force your users to carry a wallet again, or anything they had rather discard.

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