Yesterday, the Wireless Watch Japan site was slammed by record traffic after we posted our first big Net news scoop: Casio’s announcement of what appears to be the world’s first 3-megapixel camera phone, due for release later this summer via KDDI. And that wasn’t the only big Japan handset news from the past few days: both KDDI (working with Hitachi) and NTT DoCoMo have announced concept models capable of receiving terrestrial digital TV broadcasts, while Vodafone’s been mentioned as working on new karaoke-enabled handsets with Sharp and Toshiba. Phones in Japan have become culturally connected communicators and terminal makers who think more like artists and less like engineers will flourish.
For me, the most fascinating element of Japan’s mobile industry has always been the terminals and the processes by which they are designed, manufactured, and crafted into tiny, perfect communication devices. And now it appears that carriers and manufacturers are turning to sociologists and artists for design and feature inspiration, not engineers.
As a kid growing up in Toronto in the 1960s, I remember my parents allowing me to stay up and watch the original “Star Trek” TV series. I thought the starship Enterprise was pretty cool and future technologies like the transporter (“Landing party, prepare to beam down!”) and remote sensors (“Captain, sensors indicate planetary surface conditions suitable for life.”) were obviously useful, but I was always most impressed with the handheld communicators.
To get a hold of someone, anywhere, all Kirk or Spock had to do to was flip open their communicator and hit a button (or not even — just flipping it open was usually enough to initiate the call).
While we’re still a long way from creating an “Enterprise” or transporter, the communicators really have come to be (at least in Japan), albeit in a form and via processes never envisioned by the techo-wizard sci-fi writers of 35 years ago.
Sure, just like the sci-fi gurus predicted, all sorts of nifty mobile technologies have been developed and commercialized on Japanese keitai. We’ve got the high-speed wireless Internet, downloadable multi-kilobyte Java applications, high-quality sound chips, killer LCD displays, e-wallet services, and form factors aped directly from “Star Trek” or Kubrick’s “2001: Space Odyssey.” The role played by engineers, researchers, and scientists in developing these and making them commercial successes should not be minimized.
However, it appears that the thought processes required to develop new technology-based features on mobile phone is undergoing profound change. Rather than considering what technology can offer, engineers and developers are starting to look at what people want and how they act. With enough tweaking, handsets in Japan could probably allow something seemingly useful like remote desktop PC control – but the heat generated by the processor would be tremendous and battery life likely brief. Who would want to use it?
But look at what the Japanese really like to do: watch TV (and Japan’s TV is some of the coolest on Earth), sing karaoke, and take pics. Forget about high-speed-this or multi-gazillion-byte-that; just make the phone able to do what people like to do — and digital camera photography, analog and digital TV watching, and karaoke singing are among the top choices (food is also highly significant in Japan but there’s no way to deliver yakitori via mobile — yet).
Want to create a cool new mobile feature? Just like a sociologist, watch people. And while the engineers are being forced to rethink the processes by which they create new phones, competition is now starting to come from artists and as well.
KDDI have had tremendous success with their “au design project” and the first product, the retro-looking “Infobar” phone (released last October from Sanyo) is selling rather well. The au design project was created in 2001 as an internal company effort to integrate cutting-edge design and artistic inspiration into mobile phones; the team comprises outside artists, designers, and others. Naoto Fukasawa, an experienced industrial designer who has won over 40 design awards in Japan, Europe, and the US, was the key figure behind the Infobar.
Company insiders say there was a lot of intense discussion and few great expectations when the Infobar phone was launched. But they’re pleased with the sales results (KDDI haven’t released precise figures) and were clearly surprised that a non-techie phone would do so well (Vodafone, for one, have subsequently copied the Infobar’s all-white color for one of their analog TV phones).
And speaking of Vodafone, the company held a press briefing recently to announce their new design efforts.
The first result, the “Koto,” should be out in a couple of weeks and stems from what the company terms a “collaboration” between the carrier and the maker (Toshiba); more such collaborations can be expected (of course, as with all design, not everyone agrees that newer is necessarily better).
Vodafone are also looking at a whole range of new styles and form factors, some of which were on display at the Tokyo Business Show.
The upside of all this activity is that phones in Japan are becoming less techie and more attractive, and features and services are starting to appeal to a wider slice of society, thanks to more than just engineers being brought into the creative process. The subset of all Japanese keen to use (and pay for) mobile Java is small, even if profitable (all carriers admit as much). The subset of Japanese society keen to access mobile TV is much larger and probably close to 100 percent.
And as Japanese makers figure out how to make mobile phone features like TV, karaoke, and digital photography truly useful, easy to use, and fun, and to make the handsets aesthetically appealing, the rest of us stand to profit. After all, the Japanese are not unique in appreciating these features — so do Canadians, Danes, Estonians, and most everyone else, I think.
Maybe phone makers elsewhere will take a hint or two.
Margaret’s Walking Stick – A perpetual anthropology/ethnography education project.