The original iPhone, launched by Apple Inc in 2007, raised the bar for global cell phone manufacturers and service providers, who were essentially producing and selling mobile telephones that offered a few other basic communication options and some primitive functionality. iPhone and the efforts of Google with their Android mobile software have truly transformed the cell phone into the portable computer the marketing men had long touted it as being and consumers are better off. In Japan, however, customers have long enjoyed the benefits of advanced technologies and the phone companies and their handset manufacturing partners continue to outdo themselves as they progress in leaps and bounds from generation to generation of device.

Spotlight

  • 1973: The first ever call from a commercial mobile phone is made by Motorola employee Dr. Martin Cooper in New York.
  • 1979: NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation) launches the world’s first commercial cellular service in Tokyo.
  • 1991: Japan’s largest mobile phone operator is born when DoCoMo, a contraction of ‘DO COmmunications over the MObile network’ and also meaning ‘everywhere’ in Japanese, is spun off from NTT.
  • 1999: Japanese consumers are the first to surf the web on their cell phones.
  • 2000: QR code (2 dimensional square quick response code, developed in Japan in 1994) standards are approved. QR codes, scannable by cell phone cameras, have become extremely popular in Japan for transferring information such as addresses and URLs.
  • 2001: A survey finds that more Japanese access Internet services on their cell phone than a computer. J-Phone (now owned by SoftBank) introduces the first commercial camera phone and an accompanying sha-mail (picture mail) service that is a big hit with consumers.
  • 2003: KDDI’s AU phone service finds success with the first downloadable ring tunes.
  • 2005: KDDI sells the first handsets with digital ‘1 seg’ TV receivers.
  • 2006: Phones with e-wallet functionality appear in Japan through the Mobile Suica smart card technology. Consumers can for the first time move their existing phone number to a new carrier.
  • 2007: NTT DoCoMo carries out tests using 4G technology, promising speeds ten times faster than 3G.
  • 2008: SoftBank gains exclusive rights to sell iPhone 3G in Japan. NTT DoCoMo (now docomo) phones can access YouTube video.
  • 2010: Agreement is reached on ending carrier-locked SIM cards in Japanese cell phones. The Citizen watch company announces a wristwatch that can receive text messages from cell phones. 4G is introduced in Sweden and Norway; NTT docomo is installing a 4G network in Japan.

Japanese people love their cell phone technology; with almost every adult and teen and a good percentage of elementary school age children possessing a keitai (literally: something you carry). In a land where everyone is perennially busy and kept away from home by various past times and obligations, the Japanese seized on the portable device that allowed them to connect to each other and the conveniences of the Internet wherever they may find themselves.

It’s not unusual to see a row of seated commuters on a train all staring into their keitai screens and, in this land of strict social codes and interactions, perhaps briefly, with their hand cupped over their mouth, whispering into their handsets that are invariably set on ‘manner mode’ to disable the ring tone and ensure the harmony of the surrounding environment.

The country’s competing mobile service providers, NTT docomo, SoftBank and AU continually renew their colorful collections of handsets, much as fashion designers release seasonal collections every few months, and with each collection more advanced features are inserted into the pocket sized gadgets. The photographed samples above for instance (image copyright owned by the respective phone companies) – docomo’s F-06B by Fujitsu, AU’s Exilim CA005 by Casio and SoftBank’s Viera 942P by Panasonic – all feature 13 megapixel cameras and have smart wallet functions enabled through Sony’s FeliCa technology that allows for access through station ticket gates and purchase of drinks or snacks at vending machines and combini as well as at other stores. As with many of today’s keitai, they have wide screen displays – hence the overwhelming preference for clamshell form factors – that stream and display digital television channels and offer WiFi capability. They also feature touch screen functions and GPS technology among other typical phone functions – and they’re waterproof. In Japan, cell phones have not only become fully integrated media devices, they have also begun to replace the wallet.

In addition to the breathtaking developments in function over the years, the phone companies have typically not neglected form and KDDI in particular has created some stunning handsets through its au design project, which evolved into the iida brand in 2009, that aims to produce innovative phone designs and has seen handsets designed by Naoto Fukasawa and Marc Newson among others since it began in 2003. The upcoming iida design, Light Pool – pictured below – is by Hironao Tsuboi and appears as a futuristic faceted crystalline form that glows with kaleidoscopic light both when a call is received and on each hour.

Displaying their cool design credentials, KDDI opened the 5-level KDDI Designing Studio in Harajuku in 2005. K-Sta as it’s known, is an interactive showroom for its products. As with other technology showrooms in Tokyo, the products on display can only get more incredible with each visit.

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