The end of Japanese mobile phone culture

Wikipedia’s article describing Japanese mobile phone culture is fascinating, but a bit dated at this point. Apparently, the iPhone is now the top seller in Japan (our trip to Japan in October saw evidence of this).

Honestly? It’s kind of depressing. A decade ago, user-facing Japanese cell phone technology was the cutting edge. i-mode, digital wallets, and even television technology placed Japan at the head of the pack. It was a place to which American cell phone nerds looked to find the future of mobile telephony.

And now I run the same phone as many of the people over there. The gap has narrowed. My wife and I were actually in Japan for the launch of the iPhone 4s. And there was a decent amount of hype. We played with them, as a matter of fact, a day before they came out in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a decent amount of the stereotypical flip phones in Japan, and even a few hybrids (I have never wanted a phone as much as I wanted this one), but the phone company literature I brought back was mostly showing off the new slab-of-glass style smartphones we see everywhere in the US.

The gap’s narrowed significantly, leaving Japanese technological superiority in mobile phones to the infrastructure of their cellular systems, as opposed to the devices themselves. I’m sure many people see this as a good thing, but it actually kind of disappoints me. I miss having Japan as a kind of looking glass into the future. It was special because of the fact that the technology was in use – now we’re left with manufacturer demos and rumors and all sorts of crap that may never actually see the light of day. Alas.

On the other hand, we’re still seeing the trickle of Japanese technologies into the US. NFC is slowly creeping into US phones via the likes of Google and Verizon. Streaming television over 4G networks, useable voice control (Android’s, not Siri. Siri has been almost universally terrible whenever I’ve tried to use it), and retina displays have been great leaps forward in US mobile phone technology. Consider your first cell phone – mine was an Audiovox candybar with a single-line LCD and about 50 minutes a month. Our family shared it. Compare that to your current cell phone.

Mobile phones are evolving. They’re converging into the average of all the phones that manufacturers are making. Of course, this is weighted heavily by popularity, with the iPhone becoming the leader and other manufacturers scrambling to copy their hardware design. I predict we’ll eventually see phones become millimeters-thick buttonless slabs of glass, a la William Gibson.

I admit, the title of this article is a bit melodramatic. Japanese mobile phone culture isn’t ending. But an era certainly is. It’s becoming a part of global smart phone culture. The gap, as I mentioned, is narrowing, and will continue to narrow.

(written on my iPhone)