Autumn in Japan, and some observations

We paid Tokyo and Osaka a visit last fall, following up on my life’s goal of visiting Japan at least once every two years, and nothing disappointed — not the food, people, weather, galleries, nor multi-storey complexes designed to make me buy media and electronics. As Craig Mod alluded to recently on Twitter, Tokyo is a place that fulfills the city’s promise as a tool for human life.

The thing I love about its density and intensity is how that translates into support for all manner of subcultures and obscure hobbies. Today, you can barely find a functioning and interesting bookstore in Singapore, while in Tokyo it’s not just bookstores that thrive. One can wander into massive stores selling model train and forest diorama-building supplies, or records curated from a specific period, or vintage camera parts emporiums. We’re not large enough to incubate that kind of diversity, and the city dweller’s life suffers for it.

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LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling. 

Trophies as a Gift Idea

This is a bit of a long shot, but if you live in Singapore and need a unique gift, or just so happen to actually need an unironic, non-jokey trophy, consider Alpha Plus at Queensway Shopping Center.

We needed a silly trophy made for our departing colleague and creative partner, Christian, and they were able to turn it around in about 2 days for a fair price. You could probably make yourself one, just for kicks.

All manner of trophies and bludgeoning objects
All manner of trophies and bludgeoning objects
Several inside jokes involved
Several inside jokes involved here
Link

[Branch] Do we still need to physically experience music shopping?

[Branch] Do we still need to physically experience music shopping?

I thought I was perfectly fine with digital discovery, Spotify-style apps and the iTunes Store, but at the risk of losing the last big retailer in town (HMV), and remembering how one could wander for hours and come out with armfuls of new music, I think I’m going to miss the tactile/spatial experience of old. There’s something about walking in and seeing with your own eyes a handmade display promoting an album you’d never heard of, and becoming curious. A thumbnail doesn’t do that.

Branch is a relatively new startup and service that allows anyone to set up ad-hoc, public discussion spaces. The person who sets the topic (or question) can invite others over Twitter or email, and any other viewer can ask to join in by simply writing what they would say if they were already part of the discussion. After that’s approved, they’re in. It’s an elegant and well-designed system, but still relatively unfriendly to some.*

For my first attempt, I asked the question that came to mind after a late visit to the local HMV last night, after the news broke that their UK offices are now in receivership (broke ass). I’ve already enjoyed the experience immensely, even with just two other participants, and look forward to using this more.

As for the topic of discussion, it’s something I want to think about more. I still believe in the power and value of music discovery outside of clickable lists and webpages. Creating a different sort of physical music retail presence is something I’d love to work on for a future client.

* One friend who I invited balked at the standard Twitter authorization screen that said ‘this app is asking for permission to “See who follows you on Twitter” and “Tweet on your behalf”‘ — pretty standard and harmless stuff that most frequent Twitter users don’t even blink at, but frightening language for others all the same.

MacHeist 4 ends today

MacHeist 4 ends today. The annual bundle has gotten bigger and better — just US$29 for a ton of apps and services worth 20 times more — but they’ve struggled to reach the minimum target of 25,000. That was how many needed to be sold before the premium bonus apps became unlocked for everyone. After 8 days into the 10-day window, they gave up and opened them anyway. Now they’ve finally crossed the mark (26,053 at time of writing) with hours left to go.

There’s probably a longer article in here about why this is the case. Bundles like these used to make a much bigger splash, and I remember a period where Groupon-like daily deal sites for Mac applications were like… daily deal sites for free iOS applications. I guess that’s where the attention has gone now, and much of the spending intent has followed the growth in mobile platforms. Prices there are generally lower too, and I wonder if this means independent Mac apps have to start charging less, or more, to keep profits up.

Anyway, I highly recommend you look into MacHeist while it’s available. 25% of the money goes to charity, and you get a 15-month subscription to Evernote Premium as part of it. I usually pay US$45/year for Evernote and find it immensely useful as a place to store all the webpages I see and want to have searchable, shopping and reading lists, wholesale documents for safekeeping, and snippets of data in an offline notebook whenever I go on a trip. It’s essentially a digitized version of your memory for sanity. There are also great games like Braid, Bioshock 2, and the episodic adventures of Sam & Max, Jurassic Park, and Strong Bad, from developer Telltale Games. That’s like… a hundred hours of gameplay.

One great utility was added this morning: Bartender. It’s not a cocktail recipes app, the world hardly needs more of those, but a tool that sits in your Mac’s menu bar and subsumes all the other menu bar items into it. I’ve greatly cleaned up the visual clutter on mine (made somewhat worse by recent versions of OS X preferring to show menu bar icons in monochrome only), moving things like Bluetooth status, Volume, Dropbox, and my Jawbone status monitor into Bartender’s “bar menu”. Good stuff, and normally sells for US$15.

Tiny Fry’s electronics concept store, Singapore

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I don’t think this electronics store is affiliated with that Fry’s, but I like the fast food/supermarket theme they’ve got going with refrigerators as storage shelves for iPads and MacBooks on the inside. The signboard outside shows featured products (everything with a screen is shown displaying a burger) with a superscript type treatment that makes $400 look like $4.00. Clever. They seem to have iPhone/iPad cases that the usual Apple authorized retailers here don’t carry, as well as things that are outright impossible to find outside of Singapore’s Sim Lim black market: Kindles, Nooks, current-gen Apple TVs, etc.

Location: Level 1, Millennia Walk.

MacBooks updated, but even consumers should go Pro

Image: Apple.com

Apple has just updated their entry-level MacBook models to match the recent 13″ MacBook Pros in terms of speed, battery life, and graphics performance, whilst maintaining a fair-sounding USD$999 (SGD$1488) price point.

That money will get you a 2.4Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor with 256MB of memory, and a non-removable battery capacious enough to last 10 hours of typical use. That’s really the best feature here; five years ago you’d be happy to get three hours out of a low-end machine.

But if you upgrade a MacBook to have 4GB of RAM ($1648) and compare that to a 13″ MacBook Pro (with 4GB of RAM as standard, $1788), it looks like a much poorer deal. $1648 vs $1788, for a difference of $140.

Here’s what that $140 gets you:

  • A sturdier aluminium body that’s slimmer all around and just a bit lighter
  • The option of upgrading to a maximum of 8GB of RAM, instead of 4GB for the MacBook
  • An illuminated keyboard that dims in response to ambient lighting conditions
  • Firewire 800
  • An SD card slot
  • The appearance of not being a cheapskate/noob/student.
Jokes aside, I can’t see why it would be in anyone’s interest to buy this model over a MacBook Pro. Sure, mainstream consumers will appreciate the SD card support when dealing with digital cameras, and the metal body probably handles heat better, but the ability to install RAM past 4GB is the closer for me. If you buy your computers with the intention of using them up to the three-year mark and beyond, you’ll want that upgrade path in your future. A little extra memory in the later years can go a long way towards rejuvenating an old computer and preparing it for the demands of more advanced operating systems.

ION Orchard

ION Orchard front view

ION Orchard panorama

ION Orchard interior

Basement 3 & 4
ION Orchard interior

(Full photo set on Flickr)

I went to have a look at the new ION Orchard shopping mall on Tuesday, its first official day of being open. I’ve talked about it resembling the Bullring mall in Birmingham, UK before, from its sprawling promenade flanked by two-storey shopfronts to the curved sides of the building. The same architectural firm designed both, although I think they did a much better job with the Bullring. The ION’s curves are too slight, giving the whole building a strange form not unlike a dented pillow – I know for a fact they were hoping to elicit words like “organic” from onlookers. Not quite, in my opinion.

The interior layout of the four above-ground shopping levels also resembles that of the Bullring’s central arcade, which is a good thing. It’s easy to see where you’re going and where you’ve been because the shops don’t occupy fixed boxes of space, which gives them more identity, and better spatial recognition for shoppers. The roof design does a good job of letting in lots of natural light in the day, which, along with the use of predominantly white surfaces throughout and contrasting angular/curved elements like escalators and pillars, gives the whole affair a look of modernity that should last a decade, at least.

Basements 1 & 2 were a little darker, although that may change when all shops are open (currently about 70% are). The walkways are also narrower, which will probably cause some congestion problems. I was afraid, on the way down, that four similar basement levels were going to feel quite oppressive, but B3 & B4 smartly mixed things up with a different layout and more open space.

High points were the ThreeSixty Marketplace (link to another blog), with loads of imported food products that you’ve probably wanted but could never find locally before; a Korean gelato cafe that felt like it had been transplanted from some other country’s sidewalks; the return of the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise, which means good, cheap coffee and passable donuts for me; and a raft of new Japanese restaurants to try out. I’m downplaying it a little here. If you’d seen me there that day, it would be pretty clear that I love this place and am very excited to have it as a part of our landscape (physical facade notwithstanding) from now on.

I also want to mention the large Epicentre outlet (they are a third-party Apple retailer) directly across from a Nokia flagship store and a SingTel mobile shop. Epicentre makes a few mistakes now and then, but they largely play it safe and therefore well by following the design language of official Apple Stores around the world. That includes placing large, round tables with lots of flashing, animated iPods and iPhones near the front of the space, for passersby to play with. People are always standing around and fiddling with them.

When you walk into the Nokia store, you’re greeted by a small table with maybe four working phones (I went in to look at the N97 flagship model, and the one I picked up wasn’t functioning), and then a very long wall of all the phone models they currently offer. It would have been very impressive, had any of them been real and not a plastic dummy. Move over to the adjacent SingTel store and you’ll find the same thing in each of the dedicated brand zones. LG, Samsung, Sony-Ericsson… not a single REAL phone to be had. Getting customers into your store is half the work done, so why let it fall apart with a non-existent product experience? It’s one of the simplest things in retail and marketing, and you don’t appreciate how Apple does it right until you see others get it horribly wrong.

~

As much as I’d like to go back several more times now, I expect the ION Orchard to be a total mosh pit for the next few weeks. There’s probably going to be a massive ground effect that wrecks the whole of Orchard Road for anyone who needs to find parking too. So while everyone comes down to town this weekend for a glimpse at the new hotness, my plan is to go shopping in the heartlands. Maybe I’ll finally get a place in line for that other Uniqlo.

Prince of Persia on sale

This is pretty crazy. One of my favorite games from last year, the Prince of Persia series reboot, is on sale for just US$16.90, or less than SGD$25, inclusive of free shipping to Singapore and many other countries.
Head over to Play-Asia.com to get your copy sometime in the next few days; the offer ends early next week or when stocks run out.

Affiliate link to product page.(Version sold is NTSC-J, with English and Korean languages)