Friday, August 6, 2010

Land of High Tech, 2

Now, as you can tell from my previous post, I wasn't really happy with daily life here in Japan, technology-wise. ATMs had limited access and hours, and extra fees to use them. People didn't have computers at home, and neither did almost any business. Internet dialups were glacial. My kitchen felt like something out of an Iron Curtain satellite country, with the water heater on the wall, gas range sitting on the counter and no remaining counter space. And my credit card was a useless hunk of plastic taking up space in my wallet.

Wow, what a difference a few years make...

Now ATMs are open 15 hours/day, and convenience store ATMs allow access to multiple banks 24 hours. All-electric houses are being encouraged through tax breaks and incentives, with large, efficient water heaters, solar water and solar electricity panels on roofs, and underfloor heating that keeps you warm from the feet up becoming commonplace.

One thing they do extremely well, I mean seriously cool sh-tuff, are today's cell phones and portable music players. I can text for free with any other client on the same network, email, surf the 'net, transfer files by infrared, listen to music, watch TV, run numerous applications, even walking navigation, and have a 12-megapixel camera with video. Pretty much anything I can do on my PC, really, for about $20/month basic, or $60 unlimited packets. Many Japanese have stopped buying new computers altogether, using their cells for all their internet and communication needs. My son's phone takes studio-quality pics. My daughter's Walkman is so much easier to use than my IPod, requiring no special software, just drag-and-drop. A former student now works for Sony's International Division - she showed me the newest Cybershot, and I'm in love... (with the camera, yo!)

Maybe Dick Tracy's finger-phone isn't too far away after all...

But nowhere is the change more apparent than in internet access. When then-Prime Minister Mori announced the new "e-Japan Strategy" in January of 2001, with a target of becoming the most advanced IT state in the world in 5 years, and of having at least 30 million households within reach of high-speed 'net access, I scoffed. Actually, I snorted my Coke (aCola), coughed a lot, and brayed like a jackass. No Friggin' Way!. [I had just upgraded to a 56K modem, and Japanese computers were good, but nothing special.]

Just goes to show: bray like a jackass, become a jackass. I mean, "Ooops!"

"Broadband service here is eight to 30 times as fast as in the United States -- and considerably cheaper. Japan has the world's fastest Internet connections, delivering more data at a lower cost than anywhere else, recent studies show" - says this 2007 article from the Washington Post

I now have dedicated fiber-optic access with an advertised rate of 100 MBps, and peak rates of up to 1GBps. 1 Gigabyte. Per second. I have clocked it at over 130 MBps, and this afternoon just clocked downloads of 55MBps and uploads of 62. That's right, 62MBps up. I pay $50/month for this access, including 2 VoIP phones for my home and business, and have Internet TV with about 100 HD-quality channels for an additional $35. That's only 60% the rate of traditional cable TV here.

Credit cards, however, are one area where things still have a long way to go. Most restaurants still don't take plastic, and smaller stores and supermarkets usually don't either. And those that do, do so in bizarre ways. 7-ll Japan will take VISA cards, it says so on the front of the register. Phhht! I tried and they refused. You see, they only take VISA cards issued through 7-11, otherwise you're SOL. My wife has 7 credit cards which she only occasionally uses, and which she leaves at home when we travel, using only one account overseas.

Oh, here's an amusing computer-company awkward-growing-pains story. Matsushita Electric company (National) was introducing a new computer with proprietary web browser as an attempt to challenge Internet Explorer's domination of the market. They purchased the rights to American cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as a friendly alternative to MS's irritating little floating paper clip thingy. Unfortunately, they had to pull the entire line the day before the marketing campaign was scheduled to begin, when an embarrassed American employee who had just seen the campaign explained to them that the slogan could be misinterpreted -

"Touch Woody - The Internet Pecker"

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