Remember MiniDisc? The little square-shaped, muddy-sounding, smooth-playing media that made your standard Target-bought Discman feel as if you were walking around town with an ancient leaded-fueled turntable. The MiniDisc never caught on in the U.S., but the Japanese still won: Companies from that one island in the East controlled the entire portable market. If you wanted to see the edge of available technology in 2000, Biccamera in Shibuya was Consumer Mecca.
Then came the iPod. And within five years, “portable audio” became something that Japanese companies were really bad at.
But even after the iPod debacle, the Japanese and Koreans had one field in which they were absolute masters: the cell phone. Americans were literally forced by Sprint to use three-year old LG models. Guys in New Jersey pulled up friends’ numbers on tiny black-and-white screens while guys at the New Otani browsed a mini-version of the web in full color. Maybe the Motorola RAZR sold some phones in Japan, but c’mon: Media Skin, Marc Newson’s Talby? Compared to Japan, America looked like a third-world nation in terms of cell-phone standards.
Then came the iPhone.
Now you could argue that the full menagerie of Japanese phones still destroys the American selection or that Japanese phones can do neat things like receive broadcast television signals that the iPhone can’t. (Because I know you would never want to miss an episode of Waratte Ii Tomo.) Nevertheless, the iPhone — a single package — leapfrogs everything the Japanese market has to offer, especially considering the excellence of the user interface.
If we were smart, we would see this as the battle between multinational conglomerates instead of nations, but we won’t: The iPhone takes a serious bite out of the Japanese gross national cred on advanced cell phones. One product changed everything.
There is a recent Docomo commercial featuring hot actor Eita and some other guy showing off the latest and greatest function on a Docomo phone — get this, better yet, sit down — a motion-detecting boxing video game. Forget watching video libraries of films and TV shows on a wide screen, a WiFi-ready Internet device, and a revolutionary way to browse media archives, you can play a motion-detecting boxing game on a brand new Docomo phone if you set up your phone in a quiet room and punch near the screen. To be honest, that would have looked pretty cool if the other side of the world had not suddenly erupted with semi-religious technological progress.
(Wait, Marxy, are you considering the fact that Docomo has way more celebrity spokesmen than the iPhone? Fine, I admit it: Dentsu is way better at bringing together large teams of actors and actresses than the TBWA people.)
We can argue over small questions of functionality and design, but the Hype Machine in this Battle for Global Cool isn’t concerned with details. If someone asks, what’s the single coolest phone in the world today, would someone point to Japan or Korea? What would it take for Japanese phones to retake the title? Motion-detection curling?