Cellphones: Wieldy or Unwieldy?

What follows is a back-and-forth between writer and wireless expert Renfield Kuroda and reader Tim Cipullo. Cipullo was responding to Kuroda's article, "Enough Already! Cellphones Are Not Unwiedly," posted on our site November 1, 2000.

Kuroda: Tim, first, thanks for taking the time to respond. My random comments are interspersed below. Do keep in mind that, though my job is "wireless internet," much of the conclusions drawn in this yet-early industry are based on anecdotal evidence and best guesses. Intelligent debates and hard thinking will drive understanding and innovations in wireless.

Cipullo: Screen size. This is still an area where mobile phones fall pathetically short. Recent advances such as a whopping 256 colors and 10 lines of text still are nowhere near the realm of usefulness. Take your article, for example. I read it on my notebook computer, where it fit easily on two pages. If you were to read the same article on your N502i, on which you claim to have no problems reading email, it would take up 46 pages. Perhaps you enjoy reading one sentence at a time, but most of humanity finds this tedious. Admittedly, 10 lines is better than 4, but even in a compact language like Japanese, the restrictions of these small screens will relegate mobile phone email to the realm of a novelty for killing time, rather than a useful tool.

Kuroda: Unfortunately, this issue is a matter of preference. I have no problems reading email on my cellphone, especially if it means I get a critical piece of mail immediately. Naturally, the experience of reading mail on a larger screen is "better," but I guess I should have stressed the situational importance. Wireless email means near real-time delivery. In the finance industry in which I work, getting a simple news headline or quick two-line email immediately could mean a tangible improvement in P&L. As for casual entertainment users like my 20-year-old sister-in-law, she finds killing time very useful and serious, and it's a million dollar industry in its own right, worthy of attention. She rarely uses the PC we have at home to send email to her friends; it's fixed in the apartment and she rarely is, so it's not useful to her at all, 19-inch monitor be damned.

Perhaps "usefulness is in the eye of the beholder" is the correct phrase, but suffice to say over 20 million people in Japan alone have proven they're willing to pay for and use wireless email. The very fact that it gets used so much makes it useful.

Cipullo: Battery life. Here, you exhibit a trait common among many foreigners living in Japan. A certain smug superiority about things Japanese (in which we enlightened ex-pats can partake) over those "Western" (which our hapless countrymen must suffer under). Case in point is your assumption that Japanese phones have longer battery life than American or European ones. When was the last time you went shopping for a phone in the US? I did today, and the average standby time of the 14 phones featured on Sprint PCS's online store (www.sprintpcs.com) was 143 hours. Clearly, Japanese phone makers have no lead in this area. But in any case, the point is talk time, not standby time. In this regard, both phones inside and outside of Japan fall miserably short. Most Japanese mobile phones have only about two and a half hours of talk time. Sure, you can charge your phone only twice a week -- provided that you never talk on it.

Kuroda: I'm not a hardware analyst, but from my meager understanding of battery technology and the anecdotal evidence I gathered while in NY and London over the summer, I noticed that most everyone I talked to complained about battery life being too short. I rarely hear this complaint in Japan. Also, PDC and especially PHS phones are much lower power than multiband phones common in the US and GSM phones in Europe.

And, most importantly, the lower churn rates mean more people in the West still have older phones; higher power/less energy efficient with older NiCad batteries. Very few people in Japan have a phone these days without a top-of-the-line Lithium-Ion battery, as most phones in use in Japan were built within the last year or two, unlike the US and Europe, where churn is lower and older handsets continue to be used.

Cipullo: Keyboard. Your arguments here are a little bit hard to swallow. Most Japanese have never used a QWERTY keyboard? Please! Over 35% have computers at home, and many more use PCs daily at work (100% of which have QWERTY keyboards).

Kuroda: That means that 65% have never or rarely used a QWERTY keyboard, or at least are not predisposed toward a QWERTY layout. As for the computers at work issue, I would argue that occasionally using a PC at work does not make one married to the QWERTY input method.

Cipullo: As for using phonetic input on a 10-digit keypad, the same can be done on a kana keyboard. Have you never seen a PC in Japan? The long and short of it is, it is simply faster to press one key than it is to press five (a-i-u-e-o). OK, on average, it only takes three key presses to get the desired character, but the point remains. It is faster to press a key once than it is to press it three times. Period. One point I do agree with you on, though, is that the 10-digit keypad is not the pinnacle of mobile device input methods. It is a halting first step on a long road to usability.

Kuroda: Again anectdotal evidence, but there are plenty of people who use computers on a regular basis who can't type more than 60 words a minute on a QWERTY keyboard. But the issue of "speed" is kind of pointless. As the old Macintosh design gurus used to say, "Using a mouse is slower than keyboard shortcuts, but if the user feels like he's working more efficiently, it's still 'faster'." So my argument still is: There are many, mostly young users with little to zero experience on QWERTY keyboards who can touch type on a cellphone 10-key pad as fast and efficiently as any seasoned typist. They have no pre-conceived notion that a QWERTY keyboard is requisite or even necessary to effectively input messages into a cellphone. However, there obviously is a market interested in a better input method and larger screen, as evidenced by the brisk sales of pocketboards and other such accessories. But the majority of the market is still 10-key.

Cipullo: In summary, all the points you heard about the limitations of wireless data devices are still quite valid.

Kuroda: Not heard: researched and formulated. I am full-time dedicated to wireless, and any ideas I present, wrongly or otherwise, are my own and not heresay. Wireless data may be limited, but it is timely and personal and nearly always available. Shallow as opposed to deep would be one analogy. But again, even a simple headline or quick email or restaurant phone number could be worth something (300 yen a month in many cases) specifically because it is wireless data.

Cipullo: Let's face it, the real reason i-Mode and the like (J-sky, AU) are popular in Japan is not because these are intuitive, useful services (they're not ... yet), but, rather thanks to JR. The extraordinary time the average citizen here spends commuting provides the perfect environment for one to withdraw into one's own private world, within a mobile phone. It doesn't matter that the interface is ridiculously cumbersome and inefficient. Commuters have nothing but time to kill. It is important to understand that this is the real reason behind the popularity of mobile data devices in Japan, because mobile data devices' popularity is unlikely to be replicated in other countries where people do not experience long daily rail commutes.

Kuroda: I think the free time to kill because of public transportation commutes is a reason that i-mode and wireless services are popular in Japan, but certainly not the reason.

And again I argue that these services are useful: over 20 million people are using them!

As for not being popular in other countries, long or even short public-transportation commutes are not unique to Japan. Witness the use of wireless cellphones in Seoul, or Blackberry pagers on subway and MetroNorth commutes into Manhattan. Even short 5-minute hops in cabs or buses or trains lend themselves to wireless data use.

But most interesting is the recent news that many (mostly young, female) users do a lot of email from home. Once again anecdotal evidence, but I have seen my 20-year-old sister sit not 10 steps away from a perfectly good PC, happily thumbing out emails on her cellphone. Japan-only phenomenon? Could be. But I'm hesitant to draw strict conclusions about users in this or other markets; potentials abound where you least expect them. Who would have guessed that teenage girls would be the market for wireless services, when everyone was thinking it would be the gadget-loving young salaryman?

Cipullo: No one can deny the popularity of mobile data devices in Japan, but let's be realistic. It is not because the manufacturers have overcome the shortcomings of the devices, but because they have come up with a pricing plan that makes it attractive to a captive audience.

Kuroda: I agree that an attractive pricing model definitely helped spread wireless use, but again it is not the reason. I think a combination of factors caused success of wireless in Japan: Good contents, reasonable pricing scheme, high land-line prices and PC prices, the NTT DoCoMo monopoly, usable technology, excellent marketing, Enoki's vision, Matsunaga's understanding, Natsuno's perserverance, luck, timing ...

Cipullo: Thank you for your thought-provoking piece.

Kuroda: And thank you for your insightful comments. While I may profess to have all the answers, I'm not necessarily correct. Glad to see my ramblings are taken with a grain of salt and a dash of pepper.