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Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

Posted March 28, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: dumbphone japan mobile

I’m not a fan of smartphones, to the point that I still don’t own one. I’ve blogged about it a bit. I’m called a Luddite, party-pooper, and worse. I can’t receive emojis, so I’ve grossly misinterpreted a few messages from my friends’ and family’s iPhones. The struggle is real but I assume full responsibility for my technophobic decision.

While the percentage of relatively young Americans with dumbphones (or, more kindly, feature phones) continues to shrink, a growing segment of the Japanese population is embracing them. Phone manufacturers that cater to the Japanese market have recently introduced “smarter” feature phones. (The au GRATINA and Kyocera DIGNO are two examples.) These devices look like run-of-the-mill flip phones, but have enhanced features such as larger screens, cameras comparable to those on a smartphone, Wi-Fi, messaging apps, and wireless charging.

A Japanese flip-phone comeback seems odd in light of the fact that Japan’s mobile phone development has always been about five steps ahead of the rest of the world. Japanese telecom company NTT Docomo released the first mobile internet service in 1999, a full eight years before the iPhone was introduced in the US. Around 2000, when Americans were first embracing texting on clunky phones with limited features and monochrome screens, Japanese citizens were playing games and surfing the web on souped-up flip-phones. There are several possible reasons for the recent increase in dumbphones and decrease in smartphones, however. First, Japan has a notoriously low birth rate and an aging populace, so it may be that flip-phones with tactile buttons rather than touchscreens are simpler for older people to navigate. And obviously, flip-phones are much cheaper, less fragile, and hold a charge for considerably longer than 24 hours.

The Japanese refer to flip-phones as garakei, a mashup of “Galapagos” and keitai, the Japanese word for cell phone. This might seem like an odd combination (like many Japanese trends appear to the Western mind), but the Japanese often use the term “Galapagos syndrome” to explain their sense of technological and economic isolation. The term was originally developed to describe Japan’s early mobile phone market. Japanese 3G mobile phones were manufactured with a number of specialized features that strongly appealed to the country’s users but were found to be absolutely useless anywhere else, a trend that bears a resemblance to Darwin’s description of evolution in the Galapagos Islands in On the Origin of Species. Also rolled up under the term are the 90% of Japanese ATMs that refuse to accept foreign bank cards; and Kei cars, microvehicles too specialized to be profitable anywhere outside Japan.

Phones like the GRATINA and DIGNO shed light on the fact that US feature phones have remained far too basic to be of much use for anything other than making calls. But the trend of cheap, uncool phones making a comeback in Japan is especially interesting considering the country’s long history with advanced mobile features. While I somehow doubt that dumbphones will ever make a comeback in Western nations, perhaps after a decade of aging and smartphone development we’ll see the same trend.

Image credit: Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0

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#1

Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/28/2017 1:17 AM

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#2

Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/28/2017 3:15 PM

It seems that cell phones' selling point is no longer about accessories (camera, internet, texting, etc.). Instead it's being able to connect to the web, and with it being a cell phone that is just an accessory.

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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/28/2017 10:36 PM
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#4

Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/28/2017 10:47 PM

In Japan, this is what is called,,,

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#5

Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/29/2017 4:24 AM

Yeah. Go for it.

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#6
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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/29/2017 11:04 PM

I still use an old style "Dumb phone" mainly because of cost. My phone only cost me $26 Australian and I have access to a cheap plan some $4 per month.

But a few weeks ago my modern day son with his smartphone showed me something that really concerned me. I heard via the grapevine, I thinks its Eric Snowden? the chap who lives in Russia, he claims that with a smart phone voice recording and text recording of audio can be done by security organisations even when you have the phone in standby mode.

I thought this was simply not possible, well I was shot down in flames, the voice translators had no problems converting my voice into text when my son demonstrated this to me via his smartphone. He now hides his phone to damp out the microphone when speaking to me on issues that we wish to keep private.

I am now convinced more that ever to keep on using my dumb phone after seeing this demonstration.

I can see why they now say George Orwell was an optimist.

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#8
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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/30/2017 5:18 AM

All my wife wants is a phone to call friends and family - or emergency numbers if in trouble whilst she is out.

just key in the number (usually from memory) and talk. Maybe use the contact list when she gets used to the phone. And maybe even input contacts when proficient at it.

The phone she has at the moment (and one for me) were Xmas presents from our children because they wanted us to carry a phone each to keep in touch - and be able to call for help in an emergency - as is the approaching scenario was we get older.

So a simple dumbphone would be ideal - especially if it was cheap to run - ie, a gebuine PAYG.

Right now she has a (basic) smartphone that probably (somewhere in it's depth) has an app for building a rocket to go to Mars, and another app to autopilot to land and return.

It is unlikely that she will ever want that.

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#7

Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/30/2017 1:07 AM

A lot of large organizations like the State University I recently retired from still use and will continue to use dumb phones. The answer is productivity and minimizing expenses. We had a couple of thousand employees that were responsible for day to day operations on multiple campuses - this included maintenance people, engineers, plumbers and various categories of supervisors etc. Management saved tons of cash by using phones that couldn't access the web and preventing employees from slacking off on the University's time.

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#10
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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/30/2017 12:27 PM

Slackening off is only restricted by ones imagination.

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#11
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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/30/2017 1:31 PM

You are right about that - they brought in personal phones - then the University tried to ban that - then the slackers complained - HR sided with the slackers

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#9

Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/30/2017 11:11 AM

Well I guess a few people have decided that the performance of their smartphones really burns them up - literally.

Don't remember any dumb phones burning.

Seriously - the aging thing may be the answer. I am over 60 and have not yet mastered the touchscreen, getting undesired results every third or fourth movement. I get quite frustrated with the things at times. Give me a keyed input, please. And how do so many younger people type with their thumbs at a rate comparable to the best stenographer on a type writer? I just can't do that without getting the wrong letter every other input. The real kicker was last evening when I accidentally deleted a one hour bicycle ride recording. Finger on the wrong part of the screen - gone forever.

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#12

Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/31/2017 2:48 PM

After what I put everything Motorola through starting in the mid-1960's, on land, in the air and at sea, every gadget taking a licking and keeping on ticking, I am not about to give up on my little 7 year old Motorola flip phone...battered, bruised, soaked, irradiated, etc....and still working with the same battery. But it sure would be nice if it had GPS and a scientific calculator, both supported by a button (absolutely no greasy finger swipes needed) zoom control for the screen... all without making it more than 20 percent bigger or 20 per cent more expensive than what I have at a current sticker price of about US$35.00. And if someone know of a knock-off with these properties, let me know...I would be tempted to try it.

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#13
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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

03/31/2017 5:07 PM

Motorola had an excellent quality control on their product.

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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

04/04/2017 4:17 PM

Yep, but the Iridium boondoggle was a serious smackdown...if only Motorola had followed through on the seamless marriage of Iridium with cellular from Day One. Certainly, Motorola had the savvy to make it happen, but I never got a convincing answer behind this huge screwup.

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Re: Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback (But Only In Japan)

04/04/2017 6:40 PM

Well, that was the result where I suspect Motorola put in place a over zealous self absorbed CEO that was looking for very short term profits to snag a huge bonus.

And then run.

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