JIN-528 -- Changing Japan's Hive Mind

J@pan Inc Newsletter

The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter

A regular opinion piece on social, economic and political trends in Japan.

Issue No. 528 Thursday, August 25, 2011, Tokyo

Recently, many business associates here in Tokyo seem to be all atwitter (pun intended) about Google’s new social network Google+. The excitement is quite interesting considering that the social networking behemoth known as Facebook, with over 750 million users worldwide, still hasn’t managed to crack the code on Japan’s SNS space dominated by the likes of Mixi and GREE. As many companies have learned, when it comes to Japan, good technology often isn’t enough to ensure success. What is needed is a truly local understanding of how Japanese people interact with technology. It will be interesting to see how our very capable and innovative friends at the Google office here in Tokyo meet the unique challenges of spearheading a new SNS in Japan.

Nevertheless, a potentially more important development is slowly unfolding before our very eyes: Google’s Chromebook. When Google seeded the first version of the cloud-centric notebook (the Cr-48) with early adopters last year, most seemed relatively unimpressed. The notion of buying a computer that is essentially a “thin client” that forces you to rely on a menu of applications and services only accessible via the Internet seems a bit foolhardy. And the current consumer pulse (at least in the U.S.) seems to agree. When the Samsung- and Acer-produced Chromebooks went on sale in May, there was little of the fanfare and excitement that usually accompanies something like a new Apple Macbook Air. Further, Google seemed to do little to promote the commercial launches.

But upon further examination, it appears that the reason Google has done little to address the concerns regarding individual consumer adoption may be related to the company’s real target and first major beachhead for the product: the travel industry. Two high-profile tie-ups featuring the Chromebook have recently been revealed and they offer the best clues yet as to what Google is really trying to accomplish with the seemingly underpowered notebooks.

The first involves one of New York’s hippest guest lodgings, the Ace Hotel. This fall, every room will come equipped with a Chromebook, lovingly wrapped in customized felt that guests can actually take with them around the city using free WiFi or 3G service. Each Chromebook will also come with a specially designed Google app that offers a detailed guidebook of the city’s hot spots for dining, shopping and clubbing. The other promotion involves one of the Chromebook’s pilot program companies, Virgin America. Passengers on the airline will be able to use Chromebooks free-of-charge, along with a free WiFi account.

While individual consumers may still be wary of adopting a relatively pricey cloud computer, and local governments (like the City of Orlando, Florida) have still only committed to “experimenting” with the notebooks, for the immediate future, attacking the travel industry makes perfect sense for Google. Next to raw data culled from Google web searches, the next best source of information for the search giant will be in-the-field data from mobile users. Data that will likely be fed into the company’s massive number crunching-mechanism other location-centric initiatives like Google Places, Google Offers, and of course Google Maps.

If Google can successfully marry their search engine and cloud ecosystem to millions of travel terminals located in top hotels and airports around the globe, the company has the opportunity to create a kind of three-dimensional consumer behavior grid the likes of which we’ve never seen before. So yes, the Chromebook may be just a bit more important than we all originally thought (particularly in light of Google’s recent $12.5 billion Motorola Mobility deal).

But a major challenge presented here will be getting mainstream users to adopt such a vastly different computing paradigm. Changing well-worn habits, even in the age of often transitional digital technologies, can seem like a radical proposition, even to the most forward-thinking of tech aficionados.

-Adario Strange

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Start a Company in Japan
Entrepreneur's Handbook Seminar 10th of September, 2011
If you have been considering setting up your own company,
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Terrie Lloyd, founder of over 17 start-up companies in Japan,
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