I Miss My Japanese Flip Cellphone

Ok, this shit was cool in the early to mid-aughts.

Okay, this shit was cool within the early to mid-aughts.
Picture: Getty

I MissI MissGizmodo employees fondly remembers the extinct devices of years previous.

Within the fall of 2006, I used to be a wide-eyed nerd who had simply landed in Tokyo for my freshman yr of school. There’s lots of bureaucratic nonsense it’s a must to do if you resolve to check overseas long-term, however on the prime of my checklist was getting myself a keitai, or a Japanese cellphone.

There have been lots of causes I used to be excited. First, my shitty U.S. flip cellphone was godawful. My dad and mom have been low-cost they usually all the time bought me the ugliest Nokias or Motorolas our plan may afford. It died often, I couldn’t do a lot on it, and it largely was a manner for my dad and mom to verify I wasn’t moving into hassle. (I used to be.) Japanese cellphones, nonetheless, have been freaking superior.

I’m pretty sure this was my first keitai. If not, it looked an awful lot like this one.

I’m fairly certain this was my first keitai. If not, it appeared an terrible lot like this one.
Picture: KDDI

They might ship emails! You possibly can watch TV and YouTube on them! I used to be not watching a ton of YouTube again then, however you realize, perhaps I might if my cellphone was able to it. You possibly can go to web sites! You possibly can pay for drinks on the merchandising machine and in your practice ticket! Some had screens that would flip 180-degrees, morphing them into mini point-and-shoot cameras with photograph enhancing options! Some may even calculate your physique fats (allegedly) and had facial or fingerprint recognition! That they had GPS navigation!

I lived in a dorm for international college students and our first few nights, all of us huddled collectively within the frequent room speaking about which telephones we might get and with what provider.

I listened with rapt consideration as my new, extra worldly classmates defined the professionals and cons of every provider. NTT DoCoMo, whereas the costliest, had the very best service. In the meantime, Vodafone (which might later grow to be Softbank) was a budget possibility however had debatably spotty protection—kind of like what T-Cell is now. KDDI was purportedly simply pretty much as good as DoCoMo, however was a bit extra cheap when it got here to value. Additionally, its telephones got here in dope colours. I ended up choosing a KDDI.

After an hour of bungling by means of a contract with my flimsy Japanese, I used to be the proud proprietor of an electrical blue cellphone with an 8-megapixel digital camera and a kind of screens you possibly can flip round. It had a microSD slot, and if I needed, I may beam Japanese TV straight to my cellphone. (I advised myself this had nice instructional use for my Japanese language research, however I actually simply needed to look at recreation exhibits.) And don’t get me began on the cellphone charms and ornamental stickers I rapidly grew to become addicted to purchasing.

Texting was additionally a revelation. Lengthy earlier than chat apps like WhatsApp and LINE launched stickers, Japanese cellphones have been killing it with pre-programmed kaomoji and emoji. Whereas emoji are ubiquitous now, they weren’t fairly as frequent on telephones in 2006. A minimum of, not within the West. It wasn’t till 2006 that Google started changing Japanese emoji to Unicode, and it wasn’t till 2009 {that a} common set of 722 characters have been formally outlined. Conversely, the primary set of emoji was created in 1997 for Japanese cellphones by Softbank—then J-Cellphone—and have been adopted up by the acquainted 176-character set created by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT DoCoMo in 1999.

A lineup of NTT DoCoMo phones from 2007.

A lineup of NTT DoCoMo telephones from 2007.
Picture: Getty

Earlier than my Japanese celly, I used to be nonetheless totally on primary text-based smileys (XD was my fave), with the occasional kaomoji once I was prompt messaging associates on my laptop computer. However now I had entry to culturally helpful emoji—I may simply sort 🏣to my associates they usually’d get that I needed to fulfill up on the put up workplace by the station, or ♪(*^^)o∀*∀o(^^*)♪ to toast a pal for acing a check.

I get this all sounds not-that-special, particularly since nearly everybody has a smartphone now. However the options we now take with no consideration on US telephones didn’t actually take maintain till the iPhone 3G in 2008. In the meantime, the 3G networks popped up an entire seven years earlier in Japan, whereas digital camera telephones have been already round by 2000. Contactless NFC funds cropped up in 2004—that’s 16 years in the past! Digital TV streaming was doable in 2005. In 2006, my associates and I have been working round Tokyo paying for sodas and practice fares with our telephones. I wasn’t capable of pay for my subway fare with my cellphone in New York Metropolis till late final yr, and a few bodegas in my neighborhood nonetheless don’t settle for NFC cost choices.

Within the few years earlier than iPhones fully upended cell phone tradition, Japanese cellphone envy was an actual factor. In highschool, I had contemplated whether or not I may persuade my dad and mom to let me purchase an unlocked one from the shady corners of eBay. (You nonetheless can, really.) However as cool as Japanese telephones have been, the unhappy factor was they’d by no means actually work the way in which they have been alleged to within the U.S.

These characteristic telephones suffered from Galapagos syndrome—a time period that, if you happen to’ve spent any time within the Japanese tech scene, you realize properly. Simply because the Galapagos islands have distinctive natural world attributable to their remoted location, lots of Japanese tech throughout this period was hyper-local and ill-suited to abroad markets. Sony’s obsession with proprietary codecs is a symptom of Galapagos syndrome. Minidiscs, Reminiscence Sticks, and the PSP-only Common Media Disc are all examples—although Sony’s early foray into e-readers in Japan have been notable too. Sony was one of many first pioneers into e-ink, however in a rustic filled with readers, e-books notoriously didn’t catch on. A part of that was a shortage of content material, which was exacerbated by the Japanese publishing business’s lack of enthusiasm for the medium. It additionally didn’t assist that readers seen e-readers as a tool as a dangerous cultural match for Japanese life, or that Sony doubled down on its proprietary LRF format and didn’t assist extra in style ones like PDF. So Sony’s Librie e-reader could have been launched in 2004—4 years earlier than the Kindle—but it surely didn’t catch on.

Satirically, in 2010 Sharp launched its Galapagos e-reader—a direct nod meant to flip the script on Galapagos syndrome. However then, Sharp made an enormous deal about utilizing the proprietary XDMF format which it felt could be completely suited to Japanese media. Regardless of an enormous advertising and marketing push, the system flopped, promoting solely 30,000 items within the first ten months.

There’s a time period—garakeithat particularly refers to how Galapagos syndrome contributed to the fall of Japanese characteristic telephones. (It’s a portmanteau of Galapagos and keitai, or cellphone.)  For instance, one main motive these superior characteristic telephones didn’t catch on exterior Japan was that producers targeted solely on adhering to Japanese telecom requirements. One instance is i-Mode, a cell web service that DoCoMo relied on to create an e-commerce and content material portal. You possibly can simply change between e-mail, sports activities, the climate, video games, and even ticket reserving. The factor is, every provider had their very own model of the sort of community. KDDI had EZWeb, whereas Vodaphone had J-Sky (later Softbank Cell).

I, as a KDDI buyer, was most conversant in EZWeb. For starters, for a small charge, it let me entry the web, video chat, watch TV, play films and video games, navigate my environment through GPS (the Google Maps wasn’t a factor till 2008), and even make my very own ringtone. One other quirk was that my cellphone had its personal e-mail deal with, which I largely used to ship myself purikura pics straight from the sales space.

However i-Mode, EZWeb, and J-Sky have been totally ineffective exterior the nation. Whereas i-Mode was adopted by 17 different nations, worldwide cellphone makers had a {hardware} downside. In Japan, every characteristic cellphone was additionally designed from scratch for a extra bespoke expertise, which means you couldn’t simply make one system and promote it each domestically and internationally. Native distributors needed to make their very own handsets that supported the usual, which finally failed.

Nonetheless, the identical Achilles heel that doomed characteristic telephones internationally made for probably the most seamless gadget experiences of my life—one which even right this moment’s smartphones have but to totally replicate, although we’re slowly beginning to catch up.

A part of that was the symbiotic nature of Japanese life and cell gadgets. The seamless, frictionless expertise you hear tech giants blather on about? Japan within the mid-2000s felt fairly dang shut, even with out the multitude of apps we’ve got now. When the iPhone lastly got here to Japan through an unique take care of Softbank, loads of my Japanese associates scoffed. Why would they get America’s first actual smartphone when Japanese telephones had been so superior for therefore a few years? Then, when it grew to become clear the iPhone was a pressure to be reckoned with, it wasn’t unusual to see individuals carrying round two telephones on the Tokyo metro—an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, and a Japanese characteristic cellphone to get all of the Japan-specific options they’d grown accustomed to.

I, too, really fell into that class for a number of years, albeit with an iPod Contact.(What was the purpose of paying for 2 cellphone strains on my entry-level wage?) I didn’t ditch my Japanese cellphone till 2011, once I lastly caved and bought an iPhone 4S. Right now, garakei are largely the telephones you purchase for babies and the aged.

I gained’t argue that the garakei of the early and mid-aughts have been higher than my iPhone XS Max. I’m not loopy—they’re positively not and I wouldn’t return to 1 for a lot of causes. However whereas they could not have had the bells and whistles trendy smartphones have, these characteristic telephones have been allowed to be bizarre, quirky, and a only a bit chunky, too. That they had spunk. The tradition that popped up round them allowed you to precise an individuality that simply hasn’t translated properly to smartphones. Perhaps that’s why I discover it laborious to get tremendous jazzed in regards to the newest iPhone, Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy telephones. My cellphone is now a glossy glass slab and every iteration feels kinda interchangeable. I miss when it was one thing price bragging about.


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