It’s a common sight on rush hour trains across Japan: Scores of office workers gaze intently at their smartphones as they check emails, play games and, it seems, shop.

The rise of the smartphone is as fast-paced as it is high-profile. In the four years through 2015, the percentage of Japanese using smartphones leaped from just 9.7 to 62.3 per cent of the population, according the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

And one consequence of the smartphone’s soaring popularity? Growing pressure on e-commerce services to adjust, in terms of interface and technology, to accommodate devices that in many ways are now more important than conventional PCs.

Rakuten is no exception. At Rakuten Ichiba, for example, the percentage of gross merchandise sales made on smartphones or tablets, as opposed to PCs, has jumped from 38.5% at the beginning of 2014 to 57.6% in early 2016. The figure is expected to reach 70% by the end of the year.

One person with responsibility for leading this change – and preparing for even more changes in the future – is Tomoya Ishikawa, who directs the company’s Marketing & Design Supervisory Department.

Tomoya Ishikawa of the Marketing & Design Supervisory Department

“Tech trends are always changing,” says Rakuten’s Tomoya Ishikawa. “One big challenge for us right now is to provide training to existing engineers to make sure they have appropriate skills.”

“The trends of internet usage have totally changed over the past three to five years,” explains Ishikawa. “If you look at people aged 20 to 30, most are using smartphones daily. Mobile phones are more important than desktops right now,” he says.

As a result, “mobile first” has become the mantra when it comes to developing new services.

“This has been a game changer for us,” says Ishikawa. “When we start new services – in particular one targeting those aged 20 to 30 – we design for mobiles first.”

The challenges of such a shift are multi-faceted: “The difference in approach between mobile-first and desktop-first are not only in terms of information and the architecture, but functionality, too.”

But, despite the meteoric rise of the smartphone, Ishikawa believes it would be premature for e-commerce operators to disregard PCs entirely. As long as PCs are used in the workplace, they will continue to be relevant, he says. “If we see a big change in terms of the devices used in the workplace, then that would represent an important turning point for PCs.”

Of course, this being the 21st century, nothing is guaranteed – not even the future of smartphones, at least in their current form, according to Ishikawa.

Where purchases on e-commerce sites such as Rakuten Ichiba are now split between smartphone/tablet and PC users, Ishikawa sees potential for new types of devices to emerge with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), in which everyday household objects – from watches and fridges to coffee cans – will become connected.

“I think what will happen is that you’ll have one or two devices you use to actually make purchases, and those will be devices with screens, like smartphones, PCs or televisions, but then you’ll also have many other appliances or objects that feed information to those purchasing devices,” he explains.

“For example, your fridge might notice that you’re out of milk and then send an alert to your main device, from which you’ll actually place an order for more milk,” he says.

For the moment, though, it seems the very pace of change is what presents the greatest challenge for Ishikawa. “Tech trends are always changing. One big challenge for us right now is to provide training to existing engineers to make sure they have appropriate skills for the latest technologies, such as HTML5.”

Amid such a state of flux, it’s perhaps reassuring to see those predictable commuter crowds glued to their smartphones on trains every morning – for now at least.


To read Tomoya Ishikawa’s “5 secrets to a successful mobile platform,” click here.