Without a doubt, Japan is the world leader in gadgets and high-quality consumer electronics. On a recent visit to Tokyo, I followed standard operating procedures for a foreign tourist and toured the Akihabara district. Sure enough, the shops featured anything you could want, from giant-screen high-definition televisions to the Let's Beer home brewery.
But I found the most interesting gadgets in the more mundane DoCoMo telephone company outlet across the street from our hotel. The new Japanese mobile phones are nothing short of amazing. To someone accustomed to the fuzziness of American and European phone screens, the exceptional crispness of the color screens on the Japanese phones was striking (unfortunately, the photos below do not fully capture the screen quality).
Highly Usable Mobile Phone
I was particularly taken with the P503i telephone. Not only is it an i-mode phone, but it has the first decent user interface I have seen on a telephone. Most Internet phones use a roller to move a selection bar up and down the screen. Although this is better than pressing function keys, the one-dimensional movement of the roller and selection bar is very limiting. Basically, as a user, your movement feels constrained, much like it is when you use a mainframe terminal. This limited freedom is one of the reasons current WAP phones are so unpleasant to use.
P503i phone from DoCoMo
Instead of a roller, the P503i uses a small joystick, similar to the trackpoint on an IBM laptop (but slightly bigger). The result is two-dimensional freedom of movement. Positively liberating! Furthermore, when you move the joystick over something on the screen, the item enlarges, making your focus of interest easier to see. (In the photo, for example, the cursor is over the alpha-looking symbol.)
I borrowed a P503i from an NTT researcher at lunch. Despite the fact that I don't read Japanese, I was able to pull up my own Alertbox column, which I had posted from the hotel room the night before. Now that is good usability.
High-quality telephones are only half the story. The DoCoMo store also featured a range of more specialized mobile Internet appliances. The two examples shown here are intended for mobile photography. Camessepetit and Eggy both let users snap photos, which they can then decorate with cartoonish overlays and transmit to others who are using similar devices or regular i-mode telephones.
Camessepetit (left) and Eggy (right) mobile photography products from DoCoMo
Camessepetit is clearly intended for children, and I applaud DoCoMo for shipping simplified mobile products for this demanding user population.
Eggy also does digital movies but seems more nerdy. How can I apply the term "nerdy" to a product named "Eggy"? Well, anything with buttons labeled mode, menu, and shift definitely has nerdy tendencies, regardless of what it's called. Maybe DoCoMo should have applied a little more usability to Eggy before it was released.
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