Teaching In Socks

cell erosion
August 13, 2010, 3:01 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Japan used to be the epicenter of new cell-phone technology. When I first arrived here I had designs on grabbing a state-of-the-art cellphone with TV capabilities, a 32-inch screen, super-internet and the ability to conduct all my conversations for me (preferably in a Christopher Walken type voice and demeanor).  Instead, I discovered that, at the time–and still, the most advanced phone on the market was the iPhone (and even that had debuted in Japan many months after it had in America). This was almost as devastating and learning that I would not have robot pets.

I ended up with a phone made by Sharp. It has many many features–more than a standard phone in the U.S. would. Unfortunately, none of these are as useful or user-friendly as anything the iPhone offers. So what happened? As this New York Times article reports, part of the problem is that Japanese cellphone makers evolved too quickly. They jumped to Network structures other nations weren’t prepared to move to, and they developed an overload gadgets that have moved past the point of convenience. For example my phone has the equivalent of the Microsoft Paperclip-helper, except it’s a cartoon beluga who does tricks and sends heart symbols in my direction.

In addition to the beluga, my phone has a cellphone camera that can read bar-codes placed in the corners of advertisements (which takes me directly to their web page). It has an IC chip that allows me to use the phone as a credit card at stores. It has an infrared transmitter so I can transmit and retrieve information from other people’s phones. It has a GPS, TV capabilities (I don’t know how to use), the Internet(but not the real Internet–the Japanese mobile Internet), a touchscreen (sort of), blue tooth and a Kanji reader (that has never correctly read any Kanji for me).

The downside of having all those features seems to be that it doesn’t really work well as a phone. The speaker isn’t loud enough and the microphone picks up a ton of ambient noise. It doesn’t feel comfortable when I hold it to my ear. The whole thing makes me feel like Andy Rooney.

As the New York Times piece points out, in the last year Japanese cellphone makes have adapted their phones to try to fit to a more global market. The clamshell shape phones are gone. Some phone makers still promote their phone’s hardware however it is almost always attached to a piece of software–for instance new camera’s allow you to post videos of your cat directly to youtube or post pictures of that mime you say in Europe to your mixi profile (the Japanese Facebook).

One line of phones in Japan I have found intriguing is the Iida line. They seemingly have shunned both the hardware and software cold war and decided just to make phones that look weird. I like this idea; this is what cellphones used to be about.



The Ply for example, despite it’s claims to change how you feel about your relationship to the phone, appears to offer nothing new in terms of hardware or functionality. But, it looks kind of wild and it has a funny and apt name. It’s the kind of phone you could pull out at a party and everyone would stop to ask you what kind of phone it is and what does it do. The answer to those questions would be “The ply” and “looks cool”. It’s the phone as a conversation piece. Which, from where I’m standing, it way better than a worthless Kanji reader.

Iida’s latest phone is the Light Pool.  It has a boring phone, and probably cannot hold applications that recommend what wine to drink with my meal. It’s gimmick is that it kind of looks like the Hearst building (Norma Foster) and that lights up silly colors. I’m not going buy one (that would kill my Andy Rooney buzz) but it probably works better as a phone than the thing I have now.

shiny things