Shibuya’s shibuyette by colodio
I have been traveling recently which has meant less time to devote to Popwuping. I’m back in Taiwan – for now.
There are four things which dictate a great mobile device experience. The UI and integration with non-mobile devices and services; the screen; the battery; and the wireless network. Apple executes on the first two better than anyone else, they manage the third extremely well but they, like everyone else releasing products into the North American market, are being killed by the fourth. When the major markets have networks like what we have enjoyed in Asia for years, then I expect we will see some real innovation in mobile devices. The network is key.
Apple has unveiled its new iPhone 4 after a couple wild, unprecedented months of leaks. Sure, it looks exactly like we expected it to (Steve compares it to an old Leica camera), with a glass front and back, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts, kids. The stainless steel band that goes around the phone is an antenna system, while also providing the main structure of the phone, though it’s plugged into the same old GSM / UMTS radio you all know and love — there’s a reason they didn’t call it the iPhone 4G. There’s also of course that front facing camera we were all anticipating, a rear camera with LED flash, and a new high resolution display that doubles the pixels in each direction (960 x 640) for a 4X overall pixel count increase — Apple calls it a “Retina Display.”
Colorado native Kai Staats has invented a new language for cell phones that replaces words with pictures to represent actions, nouns, and places, making his invention essentially a modern form of the hieroglyphics used in ancient Egypt.
The language, which Staats calls “iConji,” consists of 32×32 pixel square images that convey either a single meaning, such as “sports car,” or a dual meaning such as “food” plus “to eat.” It’s available for Apple devices like the iPad and iPhone, as a Facebook application, or as a Web application that runs in Firefox or Safari.
“It’s just fun to use,” explains the inventor. “Using homonyms and plays-on-words, iConji messages are often quite humorous as well as informative. Whether you are sending a complete sentence with proper grammar to a co-worker, or a simple, one-character message inviting a friend for a drink after work, receiving an iConji message always causes me to smile.”
It seems similar to Chinese, but linguist Arika Okrent explains that the pictograms used in iConji are far removed from that language.
What we are doing sounds easy when I write it, but delivering aid in Niger is anything but easy. Some of the people we need to reach are nomadic and frequently on the move in search of fodder and water for their animals. This is the least developed country in the world: roads, supply chains, and basic infrastructure are poor. Transporting large amounts of supplies over long distances is expensive and time consuming–and sometimes it’s not possible.
Most of the women we are targeting are illiterate and have no numeracy skills, have little access to electricity, and to complicate matters even more, mobile signal coverage is sporadic. But we decided that if we could make the mobile phone cash transfer program work here, we could make it work anywhere.
We started by tackling the biggest issues. We purchased phones for each beneficiary, sourcing new, very low-cost models now on the market. We produced picture-based teaching tools and mobilized community education teams to over a hundred villages. These teams taught women to recognize the letters and numbers on the phones, to send and receive a text message, and to redeem codes they will receive via text message for cash at mobile dispensing stations. Concern also gave groups of the women solar-powered chargers for the phones, and offered them training to use the chargers to generate supplementary income.
A different reason why the United States lags here could be cultural. In some circumstances, computer illiteracy is worn as a badge of pride, a kind of rebellious symbol of anti-trendiness. In the same way that it’s cool to know how to drive a car with manual transmission, it can be cooler not to use electronic gadgetry when everyone else seems tethered to theirs. Combine the cultural factor with low overall broadband penetration and high subscription costs, and what you get is sluggish adoption rates of new technology across the board.
But the cultural argument is, I think, less convincing than the marketing argument. Take a look at Apple’s iPad advertisements. The TV spot targets casual end-users — ordinary consumers. The focus is on entertainment — streaming video, games, and novels, with a little music-making on the side. Apps are the iPad’s strong suit. Small, downloadable programs expand the device’s functionality beyond the boundaries of its hardware. Not only does Apple have a specific type of user in mind for the iPad; it’s also telling that user what she should do with the object in her hands. What sets the iPad apart from other tablet computers, though, is that its actual potential is largely measured in terms of context and scenario — not by its capabilities.
The conceptual hurdle that Asia’s innovators seem to have overcome — and Americans haven’t, yet — has to do with recognizing the iPad’s potential as a tool for accomplishing larger, more complex tasks in the real world. Apple thinks the iPad is meant to help users do more on the Internet. That’s true — to a point. But Asia’s up-and-coming businesses understand that the iPad’s appropriate place is actually closer to the intersection of reality and digital life.