Wireless Lights Up -- Why Japanese Is Much Better Than English

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2000

Better, that is, for inputting and reading text on a cellphone

by Daniel Scuka

In Japan, cellphones are getting smaller, lighter, and more sophisticated. The latest Internet-enabled models have 256-color screens and weigh in at between 70 and 80 grams. They'll fit in a shirt pocket (or are worn necklace-style via a nylon strap so calls can't be missed), and have standby battery lifetimes of up to 350 hours (about two weeks!). Features, other than Internet access and--lest we forget--voice calling, include customizable ringing melodies (the hugely popular chakumero) and screen wallpaper, 500-name address books, several different text display fonts, vibration mode (for receiving silent calls in meetings), the ability to record voice memos, and many others.

However some observers outside Japan have pointed to the tiny keypads and the tinier buttons, and concluded they are too clumsy for any realistic level of text input (say, a 50-word email message). Japan's mobile boom, so such thinking goes, will be self-limiting until speech recognition becomes a reality, which won't be anytime soon.

Granted, from the standpoint of English alphabetic input, this pessimism is largely warranted. Each numeric key corresponds to three letters (2: ABC, 3: DEF, 4: GHI, et cetera), with a single key press corresponding to the first letter, a double key press to the second, and a triple key press to the third. So, in English, inputting the sentence "I will be late" requires the thumb-numbing input of 24 keystrokes (not counting spaces and ignoring upper vs. lower case). For English text input purposes, cellphones are about as useful as a pair of hockey gloves to a sushi chef.

Inputting the English sentence: "I will be late" requires the following keystrokes: 4,4,4,9,4,4,4,5,5,5,5, 5,5,2,2,3,3,5,5,5,2,8,3,3 (28 key presses, including three for spaces and one more for the capital 'I'. Forget the period ...)
But the situation improves noticeably with Japanese character input. Japanese has 50 basic phonetic sounds, coded by the katakana or hiragana phonetic syllabaries. The 50 sounds can be thought of as 9 consonants that vary slightly for each vowel, plus the five vowels themselves. On a keitai, the nine numeric keys (2 through 0) are the consonants, the 1-key codes the vowels, and multiple presses cycle each key through each of the five vowel sound variations associated with that consonant (key-8 needs to cycle through only two sounds and key-0 through only three, since not all of the fifty sounds are actually used). Once the Japanese word has been spelled out, a conversion/function key is used to convert the displayed katakana or hiragana word into the corresponding Chinese character (kanji), if the user desires.

For example, the 2-key is the 'ka' key, so pressing the 2-key repeatedly will cycle the displayed character through 'ka'-->'ki'-->'ku'-->'ke'-->'ko'. Inputting the word sakana (fish), requires the user to make three key presses: the 3-key, the 2-key, and the 5-key, one time each. If the user is happy to keep the word as katakana, then that's all. If the user wishes to convert to the kanji character for 'fish', then one more key press is required. Total strokes: four.

Inputting the Japanese sentence is a lot easier than the English one: "I am/will be late" (watashi ha okuremasu) requires the following: 0,1,4,1,3,2,6,1,1,5,2,3,9,4,7,1,3,3 (That's 18 keystrokes: spaces, capital letters, and punctuation are not required in Japanese.)
Although the Japanese keystrokes indicated at left may appear cumbersome, it is in fact a very smooth process, and for Japanese, "lack of keyboard" is rarely a complaint about cellphones. It certainly doesn't stop mobile users from sending a lot of email. "Asian languages that use characters are much better at communicating lots of information quickly and cheaply," explains Renfield Kuroda, mobile ebiz strategist at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, "and several characters can convey an entire news story. Headlines are very informative and cheap and easy to send and read."

Another factor is screen technology--Japan is way ahead. The screen on Nokia's NM502i i-mode phone is less than half the size of Nokia's European WAP phone, and yet the WAP phone can only display four blocky lines of text, whereas the i-mode phone can display six lines of text at 16 characters per line, plus GIF images at 111 by 71 pixels. "Many phones in Japan can support more text, colors, and larger graphics," explains Kuroda, "so, the small displays are more than adequate for displaying text and image data."

Cultural and linguistic factors are just more reasons why Japan is taking the lead on the mobile Internet.

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