Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Japan "Enters the era of smartphones"

According to BBC News, Japan has freshly entered "the era of smartphones", and now everyone is worrying that we'll all be bumping into each other over here because we're too inconsiderate to look up from our LCD displays while crossing the street.

I'd like to point out that, if Japan has really been slow to adopt smartphones, there are two very good reasons for this:

1) The preexisting phones in Japan were unimaginably superior to the pre-smartphones of Europe. I remember coming to Japan for the first time in 2007 and being amazed at the capabilities offered by my Japanese mobile. In addition to the basics such as a camera etc., it had navigation (maybe GPS, or perhaps based on triangulation of transmitters), and email. My wife -then girlfriend- had a slightly better mobile that supported even nicer features such as TV: it honestly made phones on the UK market look absolutely laughable.

According to the wiki, the iPhone came out that year, but it was at least a year before it even entered the Japanese market. And if you already had a decent "standard" Japanese mobile, you might wonder at the advantage in getting an iPhone back then. In fact, according to Wikipedia "In 1999, the Japanese firm NTT Docomo released the first smartphones to achieve mass adoption within a country".

Basically, either the features Japan's phones were too competitive compared to our notion of "smartphones", or they were already fully-fledged smartphones. Effectively, Japan was using smartphones before anyone else. Maybe they weren't touch-screen, but they were powerful beasts for their time.

2) Utilising smartphones to their full potential requires a decent internet connection, and the mobile companies over here are very happy to charge an extraordinary amount of money for this service. There is very little choice when it comes to data plans, and if you go with one of the "big 3" providers here, you options are all or nothing. I'm not sure if this has been the case previously (there is a 6 year gap between 2008 and 2013 where I was in the UK), but I suspect expense will have been a big motivator for holding onto older mobile technology.


With that out of the way... I do wonder about the whole "dumbwalking" thing. I guess with the increases in functionality, there is a greater likelihood that people will be walking and doing something on their mobile, especially now things like LINE allow you to message without spending any yen. Increased adoption of phones in general is also likely to be a big contributor (even my 10 yr old nephew has a dumbed-down phone). Nonetheless, Docomo's simulation of everyone crossing the road while staring at their phones is really just a bit of sciency fun. I'm sure the simulations may have some use when realistic parameters are used, but you don't need me to tell you that most people will actually be looking where they are going. This is illustrated very cutely in the end of the BBC's article, where the author sets himself the goal of walking across a busy junction, deliberately not looking up from his phone, and the fact that "I'm sure I'm going to get hit, but after a few seconds I relax. It's OK. Everyone's reacting for me", and "It's so silly I have to look up". This is how the real world works: people try to get out of the way, but they are generally aware of the need to stop, and look up when necessary.

To be honest, its a nice little article, but I just get the feeling the author is trying to write life into an issue that simply doesn't exist.

Then again, I've yet to live in Tokyo.

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