I just spent a week in Japan, where I attended my first Japanese wedding in Tokyo. It was lovely, different and the same all at once. I've been coming here almost annually since 1998, and while most things have remained the same, I've watched Japan's pace of consumer technology innovation take a seeming nosedive in recent years. I have no solid evidence to prove this -- just some observations.
When I first visited Tokyo in 1998, Japanese mobile phones were years ahead of their American and European equivalents. Japanese mobiles were lightweight, had high-resolution -- for the time -- color screens, allowed internet access and some even had video cameras that supported real-time video chat.
The 1998 American version of a mobile phone was a heavy, black-and-white candy bar that was slow, ugly and did little more than make phone calls and send text messages. Nokias played Snake, which was awesome, of course. But that was about it.
I was amazed by the advanced, lightweight Japanese mobile phones. I bought one knowing it wouldn't work in the States, but was happy to return home and show the device to friends as if I had come from the future. I discovered loads of other new wonders as I trolled the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. I found a Game Boy cartridge filled with 900 games. I found roll-up silicone keyboards that were -- at least at the time -- mind-bendingly cool. Even humidifiers were the stuff of electronic wizardry.
But last week in Japan, everything seemed... the same. Mobile phones look just like our smartphones and in many cases they do even less than the American counterparts. Laptops and tablets even look dated, and Apple products -- as Apple products always are -- look exactly the same, which isn't terribly exciting. Has Tokyo slowed down tech-wise or has Silicon Valley sped up? Or am I just jaded? Or have we reached a vanishing point into which our gadgets are all becoming one?
The early days of automotive design must have been exciting and yet frustrating, just like the '90s were for mobile phones. Some cars looked amazing, but were mechanical disasters. Others ran forever, but looked like appliances. The pattern for cars may foretell the future of mobile phone design: America went nuts in the '50s and '60s and inspired the world. Then in the '70s and '80s, Japan pushed things forward by making cars both reliable and interesting at the same time. And then in the '90s, cars all morphed into the same, inline-four blahmobiles that most of us drive today. Sure, there are standouts, but you'll pay for it.
I remember the moment I realized that the world had caught up to Japan: As I looked around car number 3 on the Yamanote Line, I saw a sea of white touchscreen smartphones just like the ones I saw back in New York and Los Angeles. Like cars, our personal technology is starting to blend into one best-practice design that, also like cars, will be more efficient and do what we need it to do, all at the expense of intrigue.
Only time will tell if this is a good thing. Perhaps we're just arriving at the final stages of personal technology's industrial design and we'll focus on software as the competitive sphere. Maybe we're already there, what with new mobile operating systems being announced on a quarterly basis and companies sprouting up and withering away just to cash in on mobile software development.
Or maybe there's more to be done: voice and gesture input, heads-up displays, predictive hands-free technologies... the list could go on. Maybe I'm just bummed that Tokyo gave up on that snappy lightweight flip design from the future and gave in to the slate touchscreen thing.
The most likely explanation, though, is that Japan was so far ahead of us in the '80s and '90s that it was inevitable that we'd catch up and consumer electronics would find another hotbed of innovation. And perhaps now that those innovations are less foreign, they're less exciting.
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.