Update

iPhone finds a little love in Japan

The iPhone may be a runaway hit in most markets, but it's been a tougher climb in Japan, a country that's been awash with high-tech cell phones for many years and has every right to be a bit more jaded about the latest cellular gadgets to hit the market.

The release of the iPhone 3GS seemed give the iPhone a boost, with the 32GB model topping the Japanese sales ranks for the first few weeks and currently placing second in sales behind an NEC model, according to research company BCN.

Beyond the shot in the arm provided by the release of the 3GS, there are other signs the iPhone might be as big in Japan as Spinal Tap—and not just because Japanese operator Softbank now gives some models away for free with any new two-year contract.

At the Ceatec exhibition, where Japanese electronics companies show off the latest prototypes from their research labs, auto maker Nissan and audio specialist Yamaha demonstrated prototype iPhone applications for the first time.

The demonstrations give a hint of what the iPhone’s potential in Japan could be with the right applications.

Nissan showed off its eco-driving application, which is going to be tested in a trial program run by the city of Yokohama. While the iPhone isn’t particularly popular here, Nissan chose to use the iPhone because it’s a very easy platform for developers to work with, said Stephane Bouet, who works at the Nissan Research Center and developed the application.

Nissan’s eco-driving application monitors changes in the speed of a car, tracking acceleration, deceleration and changes in cruising speeds to estimate fuel consumption. Bouet spent about a week developing the basic functionality of the application and had the finished version completed in three weeks, crediting excellent support from Apple for smoothing the development process.

“They were very supportive and professional,” Bouet said.

One of the iPhone’s challenges is that most Japanese users prefer clamshell and slider handsets, but that didn’t stop Yamaha and partner Densan System from experimenting with the touchscreen phone.

Densan and Yamaha developed the Finger Share Piano application on the iPhone because its large touchscreen was better suited to displaying a virtual piano keyboard than other, more popular Japanese handsets, said Misao Tanaka, a spokesman for Yamaha.

On display at Ceatec, Finger Share Piano is a concept application, designed to highlight how a mobile application could work with Yamaha’s MIDI-equipped pianos. But Finger Piano Share also taps in the geotagging capabilities of another Japanese iPhone application, Sekai Camera.

With Finger Piano Share, users can record and upload a music file which is then geotagged. Any iPhone user with the same applications can then see and download the music file to play on their own handset.

It’s not clear whether Nissan’s eco-driving application or Finger Piano Share will ever be turned into commercial products. Both applications are still at the prototype stage.

[Jason Snell contributed this report. Updated 10/07 at 6:00 p.m. to provide more detail about the iPhone's sales in Japan.]

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