We've got some pretty slick phones on the American market today. From Motorola's Razr to Nokia's art-deco-inspired 7280, each is a pocketful of gadgets-camera, MP3 player, video game console and PDA-magically converged into one sleek package. But compared to their Asian counterparts, our handsets look a bit like grandpa's Automatic Electric.
Take Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo's new 901i series. These wireless hot rods are capable of four-way videoconferencing and high-speed mobile Internet surfing (up to 384 kilobytes per second). The 901is can send e-mail with attachments as large as 500 kilobytes. They can act as TV remote controls and have 3-D screens with up to 262,144 colors.
Each model has at least a two-megapixel camera and miniature "3-D sound" speakers. One even has a biometric fingerprint sensor to ensure that no one can use the phone but its owner, and three of the five models come with a nifty function called FeliCa, which enables the 901i to serve as a digital wallet. You download cash into the phone's guts, then simply swipe it over a FeliCa reader at the local mini-mart.
Almost anything else you might place in your wallet -- a gym membership ID, video-store card or tickets to a concert -- can be digitized on a FeliCa-enabled handset. Some apartment buildings in Tokyo are even making their locks compatible. Now that's convergence.
There are a few reasons why we don't have phones like the 901i here in the U.S.A. For one, a mobile device is only as advanced as the network it runs on, and our networks are a mess.
While the Japanese and South Koreans have aggressively cleared real estate on the wireless spectrum specifically for lightning-fast, third- generation systems (3G), our FCC has taken a more laissez-faire approach toward the big carriers' use of bandwidth. The result is an electromagnetic soup where our existing second-generation (2G) networks jockey for position with UHF channels, digital TV broadcasts, emergency/medical networks and even garage door openers.
With so much clutter, carriers are struggling to find space for 3G networks similar to DoCoMo's, although Verizon has cobbled together a semblance of one in 32 cities. The FCC recently announced that it won't auction space for true 3G networks until the middle of 2006.
Meanwhile, DoCoMo is already mapping out a staggeringly fast 4G network that will allow users to download data at speeds of 100 megabytes to 1 gigabyte per second.
The second reason is simply that American consumers may not covet or need cutting-edge phones as much as their Asian counterparts do. A large proportion of the Japanese population experienced the Internet for the first time when DoCoMo launched its i-mode service in 1999, and handsets remain their most popular portal to cyberspace.
In this country we tend to do our surfing on "big screens," which gives us less incentive to exploit our phones' Internet features. As of Q3 2004, wireless data services -- text messaging, Internet surfing, etc. -- accounted for 8 percent of Sprint PCS's average revenue per user; the American industry average is even lower. DoCoMo's, on the other hand, make up almost 25 percent of average revenue per user.
In addition, Asian consumers tend to place a higher value on phones as high-tech fashion accessories, jumping to purchase the latest products with the most unique, experimental functions. Americans, meanwhile, tend to opt for value and reliability.
To wit, it's hard to imagine Americans jumping to buy a product like Sanyo's Sonic Speaker phone. Available only in Japan, the TS41 conveys sound to its user not by emitting audible waves but by sending vibrations to the cochlea through the bones of the ear. Whoa. The supposed advantage of this system is that the phone can be "heard" in the loudest of places, like the cacophonous floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
In South Korea, LG has taken niche marketing to an almost absurd level with its KP8400, a phone with a built-in blood glucose meter, designed specifically for diabetics. But one Far East phone feature is sure to be embraced by American consumers as soon as they can get it: television.
Samsung has released a "swing-bar" phone in South Korea called the SCH-B100 that can actually pick up satellite TV broadcasts. Not streaming video; the real thing. LG has one too, a clamshell called the SB-100.
In this country, the technology is still nascent. Samsung itself has a new model available here called the MM-A700 that can stream short clips from CNN and other networks at 15 frames per second over the Sprint PCS network, while Qualcomm plans to launch a service in 2006 that will broadcast up to 15 channels of live programming, along with many more "clip-cast" channels.
Not to be completely outdone, we are leading the industry on a few fronts. The push-to-talk capability of Nextel phones is an all-American technology already being exported to Europe and Asia. And the next big thing here is a generation of hybrid phones that will work on both wide-area mobile networks and within Wi-Fi hot spots using a technology called Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
With one of these devices, a user will be able to talk over the Net from a Wi-Fi hot spot, then over a conventional mobile digital network anywhere else. A system like this could free up desperately needed wireless spectrum, enabling carriers to build ubiquitous wide-area digital networks with 3G capabilities.
One of the coolest new foreign gadgets is an LG model with an ingenious, why-didn't-I-think-of-that keypad that gives an individual button to each letter of the alphabet-without expanding the phone to the size of a Blackberry or Treo.
The design's marvel is that it spares users the cumbersome task of triple-tapping their phone's number keys to compose e-mails and text messages. Instead, it's one button, one letter. This is the kind of innovation that could get America's technophobic masses transmitting data like mad.
It makes you wonder, what will those crazy South Korean inventors think of next? But wait. The company that created the Fastap keypad, Digit Wireless, is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and headed by former Apple ergonomics whiz David Levy.
Right now the design's available only in Canada, but Digit Wireless is working hard to bring it home to the States.