Wednesday, October 14, 2009

First Impression of Android in Japan

Our impressions of this phone are typically positive.  We are happy we purchased it.  Because there are some annoyances, however, we felt obliged to share.  So enjoy and feel free to flame away.

We've been playing with both our new 64 GB iPod Touch, which we got a couple of weeks ago on an employee discount :-), and the HT-03a running Android 1.5 "cupcake".  As we expected, the Android OS is not yet as refined as the iPhone OS 3.1 running on the Touch.

Android version 1.6 "Donut" will add several improvements, including global search (equivalent to Apple's spotlight), a much-needed task manager (which is unnecessary on the iPhone OS), and a redesigned Android market.

Overall, we are happy with the performance of the phone.  We like the notification system, which displays everything in the task bar.  The task bar can be swiped down like a windowshade to see details, such as previews of SMS, email notifications, and what song is playing.  The ability to install apps from anywhere is just! fricken! awesome!  Widgets are also very useful because they add soft buttons to the desktop to perform common tasks such as toggling wifi or the ringer (see below)
Screenshot of  the three panes of Android's extendable desktop with app shortcuts, a folder, and various widgets for toggling wifi (center left) or ringer (center right), displaying weather info, and killing running apps or displaying memory usage (top right).  Notifications at upper left of taskbar.

There are, however some caveats that we will list, in no particular order, below.  Some of these are problems we were aware of prior to purchasing.  Some of these are general problems with Google services.  But, most of these probably come with the territory of a relatively immature operating system and are things that we expect to see resolved in time.
  • Mail is not up to what is expected in Japan.
    • It is PC mail, so you will need to be whitelisted by people with strict filtering.
    • There is currently no emoji.
    • Google and Docomo have a bug in their push system which can (but not always) delay push notification.  A work around is to manually check with the browser-based version of Gmail that is optimized for Android.  There is no reported time frame for resolution, meaning neither Google nor Docomo has a clue about what is broken or how to fix it.
  • Integration with Google services is not as tight as we expected.  The iPhone OS Google Maps app is better integrated than the Android app.
  • There are several issues with language localization that are not related to the Android OS per se, but rather with Google's seemingly haphazard approach to localization.
  • Navigation in Android is not as "snappy" as in the iPhone OS.  This may be due to the iPod Touch/iPhone's slightly speedier processor or better code optimization in the more mature iPhone OS.  Or both.
  • The Android market is truly a mess.  Paid apps are not available in the Japanese market.  A reasonably usable version of Google Maps (for someone in Tokyo) is also not available in the Japanese market (though we know where to find and install it).
  • Closing apps is a bit confusing because of the way Android allows background user processes to run and its built-in resource management.  Hitting the home key may or may not actually kill the app; 3rd-party taskmanager is recommended.
  • Many commonly performed tasks require navigating the settings menu.  There is no quick way to enable what we commonly consider "manner mode".  The "silent mode" function is truly silent, killing the vibrator as well.  3rd-party widgets provide these functions.
  • Plugging in the headphones (through the included USB adapter - no headphone out on this hardware) does not necessarily kill the external speakers.  It does on a case by case basis.  Doom 3 even started playing sounds when the phone was in full silent mode.
  • USB headphone adapter has what we call the "bimyou button" because we aren't quite sure exactly what it does.  Pushing it once toggles play and pause.  A long push does one of three things: 1) nothing, 2) skip to next song, 3) open the music player app.
  • Taking screenshots (like the ones in this post) requires rooting your phone (which we did not do) or 1) installing the SDK, 2) a Java development environment like eclipse, 3) enabling debugging on the phone, and 4) connecting by USB (all of which we did do).  Neither are viable options for those who are not comfortable with a command line.  (It gets even more fun if you are running a 64 bit OS because the SDK requires a 32 bit version of SWT.  But as you can see it can be done with some changes to the code and to Mac OS 10.6 snow leopard's Java prefs.)
Killing Apps

From what we understand, Android automatically kills tasks and restarts them as resources are needed.  Developers of individual apps may or may not code in a quit function.  The typical way of closing an app seems to be simply returning to the home screen.  But this does not always immediately kill the app.  In fact, we can find no discernible pattern of behavior.  Probably, if system resources are largely unused, the app is allowed to continue running.  This is why a task manager is needed.  We have been trying out both Advanced Task Killer (icon in task bar in above screen shot) and TasKiller (widget in upper right).  Apple is probably right when they say that background apps eat battery power.

Google services integration

There are times when we wonder if we are supposed to use the dedicated app or the browser-based service to access Gmail or to get train directions.  In the case of Gmail, we are at times forced to use the browser-based version due to push issues.  With maps and directions, things get even murkier.  First of all, there are currently two separate Google Map apps, Google Maps and My Maps Editor.  Google Maps gives you directions, but does not allow you to place markers or view "my maps".  Google Maps Editor lets you place markers and view my maps but does not give you directions.  No one has any idea why these two apps are not combined into one.  The only plausible explanation we can think of is that the memory footprint would be too large and cause other background services to be shut down (like the notification service for example).

For getting directions, the Google Map app available to Japanese users only provides driving directions, which is of no use to many that live in large cities.  There is no way to get train or walking directions.  To get this, the browser-based version must be used.  However, there is a new mobile app available outside of Japan, v. 3.1.2.  This app adds access to train, car, and/or walking directions.  And It works in Japan (if you can download/find it).  Japanese users reported that switching the system to English, removing the sim card, and connecting to the market over wifi, enabled finding and downloading the app.  This no longer works (may work with a US proxy).  If you are an android user looking for it, from your phone search for

And v 3.1.0 should be the first hit.  This version has the improved functionality I mentioned.  (DISCLAIMER: we don't know the checksum for the app on the market, so download at your own risk since you cannot verify it has no malware payload - it seems to come from a trustable source, but you never know.  The MD5 sum for the app we downloaded is 50a394656d92b85d7671ea13e2a5b8aa)  After downloading, click to install (you may need to allow installation from untrusted sources)

Google language localization


There are annoyances that anyone who has their phone set to an English environment will experience while using the Maps app to search Japan.  This is not a problem with android itself but with Google.  Compare the results for these two searches.  In each one, 東京 (Tokyo) and 品川 (Shinagawa) were input.

search of and search of

If we search from, we start out in Fukuchu City (on the other side of Suginami Ward, in western Tokyo) from the parking lot of a rental mansion called Palace Mell (or was that Palace Smell).  We end up at Shinagawa Station.  In the Android example below, we started out at the Tokyo Prefectural Government building and ended up at Shinagawa Ward Hall.

Two work arounds exist, 1) setting your Android system language to Japanese, or 2) appending the kanji for station - eki 駅 - to the station name.  The former always works.  The later sometime picks up names of stores that contain "eki-mae" (駅前).  Perhaps a savvy developer and write a nice piece of code that will force maps to access

Gmail Contacts

Gmail has a bug that causes names in Kanji to be ordered randomly.  There is no fix for viewing properly ordered contacts on the PC version - even if you set your Gmail language to Japanese, the order will be wrong.  (interestingly, though, the order changes but is still wrong.)  This problem occurs in spite of having correctly entered phonetic readings - furigana 振り仮名.  Google serves up this incorrect order to any device synced with it, including Apple Address Book.  In the case of Apple Address Book, the phonetic readings are not received, which is probably why Address Book cannot properly sort the contacts.  In the case of Android, the phonetic readings are indeed served to the phone, but if you system language is set to English, the order is random.  Setting your system language to Japanese on the phone WILL fix the problem.  Otherwise, you'll need to live with it or perhaps create a listed of starred contacts that you frequently call.


  1. You can have the vibrator-only if you set the volume to 0 with the side button. Works fine for me, and I don't find it so unconvenient.

    Maybe the thing that bugs me the more is that we still can't access commercial apps in Japan, and even for free apps, the choice is still very poor... No Google Wave on Android? Wtf!?

  2. Jemome, thanks for the comment.

    That does indeed work, but it takes 7 clicks of the volume button. 8 clicks and you're in full silent mode.

    As I get more familiar with this phone, I've realized that game sounds are controlled via media volume.

    So to get true silent mode, you also have to toggle down media volume as well (if you are playing a game in a the boardroom for example ;-))

  3. About wave, sounds like it is not going to be ready anytime soon.

  4. You can use docomo mail on your Android. You must have an iMode account (and email address) that are useable on

    Then download the app iMoNi... it will:
    - handle the docomo email account
    - supports emoji (sending and receiving
    - receiving (but not sending) picture attachments.

    This'll cost you about 800 yen extra per month. I set this up myself a few days ago. :) It's either that or explain to every Japanese person I meet that I need them to open up their cell phones to receive web mail. heh...

    Also, Simeji is a wondering Japanese flick-style IME (which also has gesture based app opening, which is very convenient). Simeji is fast and also includes Social IME, which is GREAT.

    I'm personally looking for a really convenient English-Japanese dictionary... and also some Kanji handwriting support (similar to iPhone Chinese character input). :( Any suggestions?

  5. Ben, you are right. We thought we had mentioned that but see now that we didn't. Basically it is an expensive work around. Docomo should include that for free IOHO (in our honest opinion).

    The problem is that it is not push. The only mail that gets pushed to the phone is gmail.

    Since emoji will be in unicode, and since PC gmail already supports emoji, at some point in the near future it will appear. Basically, the blame falls again to Docomo. All carriers are free to embellish the version of android they choose to include on their phones. Most do. Docomo just has the "stock" version. Again, we think this will change.

    As for white listing, we feel the Japanese galapagos keitai is on the verge of extinction. Android is on verge of coming out on a number of phones, from several different makers, including a japanese (well, half Japanese) maker. $100 contract-free android phones are on the horizon in the US. As iphone popularity continues to soar in Japan, the problem of having to whitelist is going to go away.

    We really don't mind waiting.

    As for handwriting recognition, I think the best thing to do is flash the rom and add a custom rom that includes the Taiwan or Chinese IME, which includes handwriting support for both traditional and simplified Chinese.

    Again, workaround. Just like on mac os 10.6, which only has Chinese input. if a particular Japanese Kanji is not also in Chinese, you cannot enter it. But scrawling an "air kanji" on the multitouch track pad of this MBP is pretty cool.

    Will search the J-language interwebs for what people are using for dictionaries. There is an iphone app called idic that is just a frontend for dictionary files. If you can get it in an open format, you can read it. eijiro could be an option because it is a text file, but eijiro is very dangerous for going from English to Japanese, depending on an individuals Japanese ability. Sometimes ejiro is just plain wrong.

  6. This looks to be the best option for a free dictionary.

    There is also the paid Genius dictionary for 1800 yen.

    Each of these requires a different reader. The reader for the paid app can also access a web-based dic.

  7. I am surprised that docomo has problems with pushing gmail. I have a g1 on softbank and have no issues with it.

    For dictionaries, I recommend colordict, and or wordmate. You can use star dictionary files with wordmate (for the most part... some cause problems still.), color dict is pretty much limited to that dictionary file you posted above, and a google translate addon.

    The other dictionaries i have found are ejiro on android, and aedict. I have not used either of them enough to comment though.

  8. They fixed push. There is a post on it somewhere here.

    Thanks for the dic suggestions. As I said, be careful with eijiro is you decide to use it. It can get you into trouble ;-)

  9. They fixed push. There is a post on it somewhere here.

    Thanks for the dic suggestions. As I said, be careful with eijiro is you decide to use it. It can get you into trouble ;-)

  10. I am trying to use my android based htc hero while visiting japan. I have a worldsim card which connects ok as a phone but I can not get the data services to work. I am waiting to see if worldsim can help but do you have any idea what might be needed to get it to work?