Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Cell Phone

Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Cell Phone

Why do countries in Europe and Asia have cooler gadgets than us?

By Ray Cha / MSN Tech & Gadgets

A woman is getting ready for a night out with friends. She looks at her clunky PDA/cell phone and her small clutch purse. Clearly, this is not going to work. She opens the back of her phone and removes the small SIM chip. Then she picks up what looks like her lipstick but is actually her Nokia 7380 phone and replaces the chip into it. She turns on the 7380 to make sure her friends' mobile numbers are in the address book stored on the SIM. Doing a final make-up check in the tiny mirror on the back of the phone, she slips the 7380 into her purse and leaves her apartment.

On his drive to visit a factory on the city’s outer limits, a business manager looks at his dashboard-mounted Vitas Global Positioning System (GPS) to ensure he’ll arrive on time. He matches the buildings on the small screen to the buildings in front of him and pulls into the correct parking lot. Seeing that he is a few minutes early, he switches on the Digital Multimedia Broadcast (DMB) service on the device to catch a few minutes of a World Cup match. Noting that the screen feels a bit sticky, he concludes that his daughter has been playing Flash games on the device again.

You might think these fictional scenes are taking place in Manhattan or Silicon Valley. But the woman is in Helsinki, Finland, and the man is on the outskirts of Seoul, Korea. These stories were not set in the U.S. because the manufacturers of the Nokia 7380 and the Vitas 750 GPS/DMB have no plans whatsoever to sell the devices here. Apparently the saying, “location is everything” applies to gadgets, too.

In fact, many of the leading-edge consumer electronic products from Europe and Asia never get officially sold in the U.S. market. Why? Let’s examine some of the reasons.

Americans are still one cell-phone users

On the other hand, Europeans and Asians are accustomed to the idea of having more than one cell. Nokia’s 7380 is a great back-up phone. It’s slim and elegant design makes it a fashion accessory as much as a communication tool.

But the surprising part of this phone is not the features it comes with (Web, camera and voice recognition), but rather what it lacks—a typical 10-button keypad. Instead, the user makes calls using only a few buttons and a “spinner” interface, which makes entering phone numbers the traditional way or sending long text messages impractical. Users are more likely to rely on their address book or “recent call” list to dial numbers, exactly what the manufacturer intended.

Because the 7380 is marketed as a second phone, Nokia doesn't have the incentive to spend money to release it in the U.S. when Americans are unlikely to buy it.

Transportation habits affect gadget design

One reason Asians and Europeans have high expectations for innovation and sexy designs when it comes to cell phones is that they live in densely populated countries and must rely on public transportation.

“If you spend an hour on the train every day, then you will want a cell phone with the latest functions,” says Franklin Chang, a research scientist who has worked in Germany and Japan. “If you are in your car, you aren't going to be spending your time playing a game on your cell phone.”

Another big trend in Asia is the development of mobile devices that also function as full-featured televisions. With a flip of a switch, South Korean portable devices, such as the Vitas 759, can be used as a satellite television. The NT-700 GPS/DMB system from Plena even displays television with a picture-in-picture feature.

Sony has a line of its popular VAIO laptops that are not available in the U.S. The VAIO VGN TX3 looks like a compact laptop, however, its key feature is that it comes with a service called “1seg,” which can pick up television signals in Japan. Because DMB and 1seg services are not available in the U.S., these devices are not sold here and probably won’t be anytime soon.

Manufacturers tend to test products close to HQ

Sometimes a gadget doesn’t make it out of its home country because manufacturers are only conducting a test release. Sony, for example, will use the Japanese public’s insatiable appetite for new gadgets to see if a particular technology merits a global rollout.

Mark Horn, a veteran marketing executive who worked and lived in Asia, has seen this first hand. "When I lived in Tokyo," Horn says,"I worked as a copywriter selling consumer electronics to guest workers in Saudi Arabia, and to people across Asia, Europe and Latin America. The products were almost always one or two generations behind what was on sale in Japan. The Japanese product life cycle was very short, with innovations coming to market every six months."

The Sony VGN-U70 Ultra-Mobile PC, for instance, never made it out of its home market of Japan. First introduced in 2004, the now-discontinued U70 was a fully functional tablet PC/laptop that was the size of a paperback book. Two years later, Sony announced the VGN-UX50, a similar product that will be available in the U.S. in July 2006. Thus, Sony used the U70 to test and improve upon technology before the worldwide release of the UX50.

American tech companies produce cool gadgets, too!

So, what are gadget-obsessed folks who live in the U.S. to do? One place to look for a tech fix is in our own backyard. U.S. firms are starting to produce products that are every bit as innovative as their overseas counterparts.

For years, Japan’s Sony led the development of personal music players, first with the Walkman in the 1980s and then the Discman in the 1990s. However, today the Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple holds that elite spot. Its iPod is the best-selling MP3 player in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and even Japan.

Another example is the Razr phone. With its sleek, thin casing and "Tron”-like keypad, the Motorola Razr helped the Schaumburg, Ill.-based company reclaim its position as the world’s second-largest cell phone maker. The Razr was the “it” phone of 2005 and sales are still going strong a year later The company reports having sold 50 million Razrs since its introduction in late 2004. All eyes are on Motorola as it has recently unveiled Razr’s new siblings, with hopes that the Krzr and Rizr will perform just as well

These success stories will hopefully encourage more innovation on our shores. But despite a few exceptions— the international hit Nintendo DS Lite portable gaming system arrived here only a few months after its Japanese release—most gadgets from abroad still take their time getting stateside. Gadget aficionados must learn to practice patience. Remember to breathe.