Hindsight, or Mobile Phones in Japan Circa 2003

There’s an article that, against all odds, I still think about quite often despite having read it eight years ago. I suppose it’s because nowadays, most of the work I’m doing is for mobile phones. It could also be how much time I spend using my iPhone & iPad in general, and how much that interaction has seeped into our everyday lives.

In the article, the author colorfully described the mobile phone use patterns in Japan. They were browsing the web. They were making purchases, they were interacting with public installations, they were paying bus fares. All from their phones.

It didn’t make sense. I think the reason I remember this article so well is because of how quickly and aggressively I passed it off as being ridiculous. But over the course of time, I’ve realized that the reason it seemed so absurd was that my frame of reference didn’t allow for it to be any other way.

Think about what our phones were like in 2003. If you had a nice phone, your screen was 2 inches tall. It had a numbered keypad; qwerty keyboards weren’t even really happening then. To put the the technology of 2003 in context even further, my macbook at the time had a 10Gb hard drive.

Of course, doing any of these things on a phone today seems completely normal. Even obvious. But in the context of that era, these use patterns just didn’t make sense. It took the shift in thinking that the iPhone created for it to make sense.

I guess the reason that I think about it so often is that looking back, it’s obvious that an iPhone-like experience was coming. Instead of regarding their mobile habits as silly because they were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole (as I had at the time), I should have seen what it was: revolutionary. They had figured out the potential, and were simply ahead of the tools. It wasn’t their fault that the phone they needed didn’t exist yet, and the ones who were smart enough to pay attention (as I had failed to do) were able to change the way the world works.