With America's status as a technological superpower comes a tendency to occasionally straight ignore the rest of the world. For better or for worse, here are technologies we've all but completely missed out on.
When Laserdisc player production finally spun down a month or so ago, it wasn't much of an occasion. I mean, aside from inspiring a little grade-school nostalgia and upsetting a hobbyist or three, the event wasn't materially notable. For us, that is. It turns out that Laserdiscs were much more popular in Japan than America during their heyday—about 500% more popular.
Why? The Japanese success of the Laserdisc (or Videodisc, as they were marketed there) comes down to the two things: money and anime. From launch, Laserdisc prices were lower in Japan than in most other markets, which accelerated adoption. Anime fans appreciated the format's improved fidelity, which drove sales at the time and eventually led to the still-active secondhand LD market. Laserdisc players, though no longer produced, are still available in the shops of Akihabara and elsewhere. At a Best Buy in Akron? Not so much.
When Nokia does something interesting, we take notice. Otherwise, in the US the company exists in an awkward netherworld of ultra-high name recognition and almost infinitesimal relevance. To most Americans, Nokia looks like a budget-phone maker. To most of the rest of the world, they're the undisputed king of cellphonery, and not just in name—they're by far the largest manufacturer of handsets on the planet. They literally dwarf their competition, selling double the volume of their nearest competitor, Samsung.
By the numbers: Nokia moved 113 million mobile devices in the last quarter alone, their entry-level 1100 handset has sold over 200m units, and at one point the N95, a precocious, clunky do-it-all handset topped the mobile phone sales charts in the UK. Where does the US stand in all of this? Of those 113 million mobile devices sold last quarter, just five million found their way to North America. Even the iPhone matched those numbers while RIM's BlackBerry nearly doubled them. Nokia is the gadget equivalent of the BBC—most Americans know about it, but the rest of the world depends on it.
I'm not talking about expensive, pixelated video-over-3G services here. No, I mean full-fledged digital TV streamed straight to your handset, PC or PMP. Brazil has it, South Korea has it, and of course, so does Japan. The tech used in Japan and Brazil is known as 1seg, and it broadcasts over UHF alongside regular HD content. In Japan, more than two thirds of new mobile phones support the standard, which is a part of daily life for many people. Here, it's basically unheard of.
DMB is a alternative standard, targeted at a much wider audience. Developed in South Korea, the satellite and terrestrial version of the tech (S-DMB and T-DMB, respectively) are already in widespread use there and T-DMB is being deployed across much of Western Europe—trials appear to be going fairly well. Unfortunately for us, the VHF and UHF bands used by the T-DMB standard have already been claimed by preexisting TV programming and the military, so don't expect to see terrestrial TV on AT&T or Verizon phones anytime soon, though yours might be capable of the pay-for-play MediaFlo service that nobody uses.
Osaifu-Keitai, or, Your Phone Is Your Wallet
In much of the world, including the US of A, mobile payment systems have been ignored or abandoned after fitful starts. Not in Japan (if you're noticing a trend here, good job!). Osaifu-Keitai, the e-wallet standard adopted by Japanese telecom heavyweights NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank and au, essentially renders wallets obsolete. Phones equipped with Osaifu-Keitai can be charged with money, download tickets for anything from a sporting event to a plane trip, serve as official identification or link to a credit card.
Due to uncertainties about demand for such a service and loads of red tape , no comparable standard has emerged stateside, and it's a shame: If you can come to terms with the nebulous privacy issues associated with carrying so much private information on a losable device, it does seem like the plain, obvious and fundamentally good type of technological progress that is probably, with or without our assent, inevitable. Oh well.
Next-Gen Instant Messaging
AOL (emphasis on the A), burdened with decades-old stereotypes about its tech-tarded users and a persistent association with both geriatrics and late-'90s Meg Ryan movies, doesn't have the best public image. But they do still run the nation's most popular messaging platform! AIM, despite being a vestige of a service that its parent company doesn't really care much about anymore, is the de facto standard for messaging in the US (and Israel, strangely). As we saw earlier though, that doesn't always mean much.
Worldwide AIM/ICQ/iChat numbers are massively outclassed by MSN, or Windows Live as it's been called for the last few years. In China, the largest IM market, most people don't bother with either, opting for the Tencent QQ service. Both were born a solid five years after AIM, but their extra features—mostly messaging add-ons meant to appeal to a younger set—are questionably useful. It's not so much that sticking with AIM has left Americans on an inferior service, it's that it has isolated us, in a small way, from the rest of the messaging world.
The story of the MiniDisc epitomizes tech regionalism: A solid, capable contender for recordable audio format dominance, the MD was met with enthusiasm in Japan. It was extremely advanced for its time, rolling fantastic, CD-like audio quality with the recording abilities of a cassette, all in a package that was more portable than either. Despite being introduced in the early '90s, the format held up well against the first generation of MP3 players, which, with their limited capacities, slim feature sets and high prices, didn't really provide a perceptible advantage over the venerable MD units. Sony had a solid product—and even a bit of a hit—on its hands.
At least, that's how the story went in Tokyo. Despite Sony's best efforts—and what seemed like an endless string of product revamps—the MiniDisc was never more than a marginal player in the US. Sure, it earned plaudits from audiophiles and musicians (check out the recording information for the thousands of concerts on Archive.org if you don't believe me), but the format never took off, either as a recording medium or, due to risk-averse record companies and the high cost of the actual media, as a competitor for the CD. When MP3 players came of age, the MD's door to America finally latched shut for good. Sony, of course, took a while to get the message, and Steve Jobs was laughing the whole time.