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The first MobileinJapan.com event, co-organized with the Tokyo PC Users Group and Digital Eve was a great success on Thursday, March 12, 2009 at the Pink Cow. Thank you for all of those who came and helped us make it a nice event!

For those who followed live online, you know we had to struggle with ustream.tv. Our apologies. We ended up using our Qik.com personal accounts for the live feed (special thanks go to Joseph Tame, who handled those and Michael Reinsch and Kyle Barrow, assistant cameramen on the spot).

As for the event itself, I won’t make a full summary as many topics were mentioned, but will share some key points that stuck in my mind. As I was a panelist, I might not have enough distance to judge, so if a key issue we talked about is missing, feel free to sound off in the comments.

If you’d rather watch the entire event, you can watch the entire video. There are a few glitches due to the experimental stream we undertook:

The iPhone, winner before the battle starts?

As soon as the event started, it appeared that the three panelists, Steve Nagata, Mike Tokue and myself, Paul Papadimitriou, for all gadgets geeks that we are, were all one one phone: Apple’s iPhone. Andrew Shuttleworth, the night’s moderator and a long-time Windows Mobile fan, has also converted (going so far as to wait in line 17 hours to get his on July 11, 2008 when it was released in Japan!).

Was that a recipe for a smartphone crush with one winner? Not exactly.

Smartphone v. Dumbphone

Maybe let’s first agree on a smartphone definition. Steve gave us a great one: a communicator and data aggregator that can be fiddled with, opposite to most “dumb phones”, as he would call them, which are basically locked by operators and manufacturers for a very standard use.

Mike and Steve pointed out that the iPhone might be a phone that should be considered for people wishing for a smartphone without too much hassle. Everything is controlled, you’re on rails and cannot deviate, as per Apple’s wishes.

Corporate use

The Blackberry, on the other hand, was thought for, made for and introduced to corporations first. That’s key in its strength and, for that, it still remains the ultimate business smartphone.

When I remarked that the iPhone was somewhat lagging in security (remote kill, mandatory password protection), Steve announced that Apple was currently introducing a Enterprise Server solution that is allowing for these. While not widely available yet, it is certain to step the iPhone game up.

Where are the others?

Windows Mobile? It’s lagging, no matter how you turn it. However, Andrew and the rest of us were quick to agree on one point: never underestimate Microsoft. It’s still an innovative company and who knows what they could bring next.

As far as Android, Steve wouldn’t bet his money on its success. It’s a tad early to see where it will go, but he’s afraid that it’s a non-finished product that Google hopes the rest of community will polish, as often with their services.

Symbian, the platform empowering Nokia, is still #1 by a large margin, according to the latest Gartner reports on worldwide smartphone sales. However, the company has now exited Japan.

I remarked that companies having full control on both software and hardware had some kind of advantage in respect to the end user experience. You’ve got Apple and RIM on one side, Microsoft and Google (strange association there), on the other.

Smartphones in Japan

Yes, so what about Japan? Why isn’t there a wider use of smartphones in Japan and why no Japanese company is able to produce a real smartphone for its market?

Mike reminded us the curse of the NEC operating system, an OS only used in Japan while the rest of the world was adopting DOS and early versions of Windows. It still goes on and might point out to why no Japanese company is launching a smartphone here.

The fact that keitais already use a form of email and have mobile internet portals for a long time created an entire mobile eco-system which now needs to be completely adapted to a new world of standard email and standard internet, Andrew greatly pointed out.

Being early innovators can also sometimes lead to a delay in further technology adoption, I added, pointing for instance out that the i-mode already had an App Store.

The keyboard is another important aspect that Mike reminded us of. Japanese do not need a full QWERTY keyboard for input. They don’t see why they should use both hands when the current system allows for a very rapid recognition with one hand. A bulkier smartphone seems suddenly less attractive.

To open a real market for smartphones in Japan, according to Steve, one needs to give them to very important CEOs, for then, politicians would want them, then public figures would want them, then, obviously, everyone would want them. That’s how it should be done.

How far have we come?

Mike showed us what devices he would use in the past for GPS, data and calls. All this can hold in one small and reliable device now.

The vast collection of smartphones that Steve accumulated in the past 3 1/2 years demonstrated how competition remained of the utmost importance.

In one year

And talking about competition, the Palm Pre was on some people’s lips. While not certain if it was a good thing, Steve qualified it as a phone that was thought of everything the iPhone was not.

Here’s the video I talked about, taken from a US late night show. You can get an idea of the general user interface. iPhone “killer” or not, the glimpses look promising:

In ten years

To end the debate on a forward-looking note, Rick Kennedy asked us what a smartphone could do for him. Could it offer live interaction with the surroundings, from a city discovery point of view to a conversation tool with anonymous people surrounding him? While the iPhone offers some buildings blocks of this future, as Steve mentioned, I encourage you to look at this video, recently filmed at the TED series of conferences. The future might be there:

…or, to go back at Andrew’s long loyalty for the Seattle-based company, is it Microsoft that holds the key?

If there’s one winner of the night, it was the community. Thank you all again and see you soon for another event!

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