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Archive for March, 2013

Consumer innovation in Japan and the US

This is a blog post about how city structures affect that kinds of products we innovate.

Chorus: Most cities in Japan are densely populated and navigated by foot and public transport. Most cities in the US are sprawling, having grown after the proliferation of the automobile.

The original Sony TPS-L2 Walkman (1979)

The original Sony TPS-L2 Walkman (1979)

As a result, Japanese people are much more used to using products on-the-go than Americans (it’s not easy to use various products while driving). This is why the first mainstream portable music player (The Sony Walkman) and the first mainstream portable gaming device (The Nintendo Gameboy, sorry Game and Watch) were innovated in Japan. This is also the reason why more people still use the internet on cellphones in Japan than on computers. Mixi, Japan’s largest social networking service until recently, requires every user who signs up to have a cellphone e-mail address in Japan (SMSs are rarely used in Japan for technical limitations).

As such, mobile phones and mobile internet in Japan were developed and adopted much earlier than in other countries. The iMode, NTT DoCoMo’s walled-garden internet service was the world’s first mass-adopted mobile internet service which was copied by the other mobile operators and launched in Germany (to a resounding failure). The iMode carried not only normal information like weather and fun information like horoscopes, but it also delivered transit information (especially route maps and planning) that is incredibly convenient for living in cities with extensive public transportation networks.

Most of the US is a heavily automotive society with large sprawled cities where most of the people travel on cars. It’s no surprise that things like drive-thru fast food restaurants and drive-in theaters were invented in the US. Also, because unless one is in a shopping mall, going from store-to-store often requires driving, there has been tremendous innovations in retailing for stores to become “destination stores.” While stores in Japan are more focused on selling things, lots of stores in the US focus on selling experiences. Many Best Buy stores in the US have sections of the store where you can see an entire home entertainment setup and experiences some of your potential purchases in context. Other stores like Walmart and Costco not only stock every imaginable product group, but they also contain fast food restaurants so that the experience is a mix between shopping and expedition. The sprawling nature of the US is also what brought the advent of catalogue shopping with the Sears Catalog in 1888, the legacy of which still continues today through online shopping with Amazon leading the way.

(Note: Costco does exist in Japan now, but they are in rural areas where many people have cars, and they rely heavily on the extremely efficient Japanese postal system for home deliveries)

Shinjuku District in Tokyo

Shinjuku District in Tokyo

A Japanese Store Front

A Japanese Store Front

On the other hand, the compact nature of Japanese cities create an incredible store front that millions of people walk in front of everyday. If you’ve traveled to Japan, you’ve probably noticed how small most stores are and how efficiently packed they are with products, many of which can be seen outside. The result is that there are much more opportunities to seamlessly introduce new products in Japan to pedestrians traversing the city. This leads to lots of small innovation opportunities for small companies who can survive off of few niche hits. Take for example the following foot finger separator:

The Foot Finger Separator

The Foot Finger Separator

Where would you even put something like that in a store like Walmart? Health equipment? Pharmacy?

Of course to think that everything can be explained by the shape of cities is an oversimplification. There are many more factors, both visible and invisible that shape the kinds of innovation that happens, and the interplay is incredibly complex. For one, I am always intrigued by Japanese consumers’ ability to integrate new technologies in their life while maintaining a strong set of traditional values. In the US, I am amazed at how accepting people are of risk and risk takers, especially in places like Silicon Valley. One thing is for certain though, no matter what shape the city or what culture may exist, innovation needs innovators, and both countries are filled with them.

 

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Addicted to… Ukulele?

flea ukulele

I apologize for the decreased posting frequency on this blog recently. Since the new year began, I’ve been addicted to learning how to play the ukulele and sing. I learned how to play the basics when I lived in Hawaii twenty years ago, but I didn’t own an ukulele until I moved to Paris four years ago when my friends from the U.S. gave me a green ukulele as a going away party. That ukulele disappeared one epic summer night by the side of the Seine but I replaced it with a Magic Flea Tenor ukulele which was mostly decoration until my recent binge.

It’s amazing how many ukulele tabs are available online and how much you can learn from just watching people on YouTube. Since the ukulele had its renaissance last decade, there is a vibrant online community of people trying to cover all kinds of music on the four-stringed instrument. I’ve been learning mostly songs I like in general which cover everything from classic rock to 90’s pop to indie. I’m also trying to learn songs in many different languages. So far I’m working on English, Japanese, French, German, and Finnish with Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Korean in queue. Maybe someday in the future, I will have enough bravery to post a video of me playing and singing. In the meantime, if you visit me in Frankfurt, I will gladly play a song or two for you. Also, if you think there is a song I should learn, post it in the comments.

At another level, I’ve been wondering where this motivation to learn ukulele has come from. While it’s nice that I’ve finally found my musical groove 25 years after my parents put a violin in my hand, I really should be learning German right now, but between work, Ultimate Frisbee, going out, ukulele, and the occasional blogging, my schedule is pretty much filled. My Ultimate team is getting on my case about learning German and they’ve been really supportive, but I need to take some of the energy devoted to ukulele and channel it to learning German. I just don’t know how to entirely control my motivation. Any ideas?

In the meantime, I will do my best to keep this blog going with the usual musings from my slightly unusual mind.

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