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Japanese Cellphones as Mysterious Super-Gadgets: 2009 Edition

Illustration for article titled Japanese Cellphones as Mysterious Super-Gadgets: 2009 Edition

Every year or so, you'll read the same line: Japanese cellphones are amazing, futuristic überhandsets, and the rest of the world is stuck in the last decade. In 2009, though, that narrative has basically collapsed.

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The gist of today's NYT piece, "Why Japan's Cellphones Haven't Gone Global," will sound familiar: Japanese cellphones feature impressive technology that isn't seen elsewhere; Japanese mobile users are more avid, age-diverse and common than American ones; and an assortment of barriers—including language-tied interface rules, a fundamentally different design philosophy, and entrenched consumer preferences—are keeping them from leaving the island. But for the first time in recent history, this is a good thing. Japanese cellphones, as they are, sound absolutely fucking terrible.

Over-the-air mobile TV is interesting, but can—and will—be replaced by internet-based video services, and cellphone payment systems, though great, are by no means impossible here—in fact, they're on their way. Scanning the article for other futuristic features I'd like, I come up dry: Barcode scanning? Any phone with a decent camera and an appropriate app can do that. Waterproofing and solar power? For most these are gimmicks. Facial recognition unlocking? Please, no.

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What you're left with now is something of a superduperdumbphone: a bulky clamshell handset with an internet connection that relies on what amounts to a glorified WAP service, and a bloated, marginally useful list of features and, most importantly, a horribly convoluted, underdesigned proprietary OS. (A situation which Lisa wonderfully explained—along with a lot of other material rehashed in this piece—here). This kind of thing was impressive, but things have changed: We've got HTC Heroes, Palm Pres, iPhones and BlackBerrys. We have full-fledged, user-friendly operating systems, and flourishing app stores. We have phones that, despite lacking swiveling screens, experimental RFID technologies and barometers, are actually usable.

The article invokes an evolutionary metaphor:

Japan's cellphones are like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands - fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins.

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I'm not sure about "fantastically," but the divergent bit is spot on. By means of different—and not necessarily favorable— consumer and industry habits and preferences, decked-out KDDI handsets and the like are in a completely different genus than the phones the rest of the world cares about, so much so that they can't leave home; not because they wouldn't be received well, or because the environment wouldn't support it, but because they'd get eaten alive. [NYT]

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DISCUSSION

The NYT article forgot to mention one essential fact: That many of the features are not only hardware gimmicks, but that those features are integrated into the daily life in Japan.

Two examples:

- Pay function: It is common to enter the huge subway system in Tokyo (2.916 billion passenger rides per year) by paying contact-free with the mobile phone.

- Bar codes: entertainment listings, advertising posters, magazine articles, e.g. _all_ come with barcodes for beaming essential information (like addresses, time schedules, e.g.) on the mobile phones.

Currently in the West only the iPhone is able to match most of the functions of Japanese phones have, but they are not part of the daily life (contact-free ticketing via mobile phones in Western subways anybody?)