Main image of article Look to Japan For Next-Generation Smartphone Influences

Upcoming smartphone releases from Sharp and Kyocera to Japan’s AU KDDI network may hint at the future direction of other manufacturers. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 videos trumpeted the fact that it has the first touchscreen smartphone that you don’t have to touch to operate. Onboard technology detects your finger swipes even when they’re above the screen – which is apparently great news for spare rib aficionados. At 4.99 inches, the screen is 0.01 inches from the arbitrary definition of a phablet. It’s a great piece of equipment, but it looks set to be plagued by the same issues that iPhone and Galaxy owners have faced from day one: The battery is too small.

As power management systems have improved, manufacturers have milked extra performance out of smartphone batteries. But with bigger screens and faster processors, it’s often a case of two steps forward, two steps back. We end up in the same place, with a phone that will get us through a day of regular use if we limit what we do. That’s no way to live. It was for this reason that I found myself very interested in two models set for release in Japan on the AU KDDI network.

Next-generation models from Sharp and Kyocera boast something that only Motorola and Razr Maxx have managed to pull off – batteries that are big enough to last longer than a day. If the manufacturers’ claims are to be believed, they may last several days. However, this is the real world and when the laws of physics and regular usage scenarios apply, most people will probably be able to manage a day and a half – more if they ration.

There are arguments against bigger batteries: They cost more, weigh more and make phones thicker. But if external battery sales are anything to go by, then it seems that the public wants them. I was a little surprised that the Motorola Razr Maxx failed to make much of a splash, but then consumers were still head-over-heels in love with the iPhone when it launched. People are fickle. The market has become a lot less predictable, and Apple has long since lost the dominance that seemed at one time to be guaranteed. People will move on if they like something better or when something else becomes a little too passé. Enter Samsung.

Samsung's Approach

While some would argue that Samsung’s earlier Galaxy models borrowed a little too heavily from the iPhone, the South Korean manufacturer has since taken a direction that is entirely its own. While Apple opted for smaller screens that are easier to handle, Samsung focused on user experience. The 5-inch screens that we see on smaller phablet devices from Samsung, HTC, Lenovo and LG are testament to its vision. Although Retina displays look fantastic, you can properly navigate a website on a Galaxy S3, and the S4 delivers even more screen real estate. An iPhone is fine for minor browsing, but doesn’t hold a candle to the S III when it comes to entertaining yourself on a long train ride.

A quick perusal of upcoming models from Korean and Japanese manufacturers reveals that they’re all thinking the same thing when it comes to the touchscreen: Big screens sell (within reason). People don’t need huge hands to comfortably use a 5-inch screen. In my wanderings around Japanese high school classrooms, I’ve noticed that the S III and other models sporting plus-sized screens are now replacing the once dominant iPhone. Five-inch screens, or screens that are very close to that, are here to stay, with cut-priced mini versions for those who don’t want them. That the bigger phones have proved to be a hit in Japan shouldn’t come as a surprise since mobile devices are the point of Internet access for many young people there.

It’s easy to read too much into Japanese technology trends. The country has always done its own thing when it comes to the cellular phone. It can claim the ignominious distinction of having held out against the smartphone for longer than any other developed country, to my knowledge. Eventually, the iPhone found its way there and the public was suitably wooed but, with the exception of Sony, local manufacturers were slow to get onboard with Apple’s approach. Japan has tended to be a follower when it comes to smartphone technology and its international success has been limited at best. That could change in the future after Softbank’s acquisition of T-Mobile, but it certainly won’t in the short term.

Japanese manufacturers face two hurdles: First, strongly top-down corporate cultures that some would say makes it difficult for designers to make bold decisions and, second, an extremely limited range of third-party accessory manufacturers. Can you find an OtterBox for a Sharp? While I would love a battery that could last two or three days between charges, I like my rugged case and bullet resistant screen protector more.

It could be argued that it was not until 2012 that things started to change with a number of quality models delivered from Hitachi, Panasonic, Kyocera and Sharp -- and Sony started to fall by the wayside. Kyocera was notable for its bone conduction speaker system. Sharp’s Aquos Serie was an attractive phone with solid performance that was hampered by underwhelming battery life.

Power Play

The next generation models of phones from both of these companies will offer only the usual gains in terms of processing performance and functionality. However, battery sizes for both models have been given a substantial bump, to the point where the average commuter or student should never have to worry about whether they packed their charger or external battery. The 2013 Sharp Aquos Serie boasts a 3,080mAh battery and adds 802.11ac into the mix. Kyocera’s 2013 Urbano sports a 2,700mAh battery, which the manufacturer says is good for 570 minutes of talk time. Incidentally, that’s only 100mAh bigger than Samsung’s S4, but it’s for a 4.7-inch screen as opposed to a 4.99. In contrast, the iPhone 5’s 1,440 mAh is laughable.

Battery life is important everywhere, but it’s crucial in areas where people travel to and from work or school by public transportation. Cases in point: Tokyo, New York, London and just about every major city around the world with a well-established public transportation network. The difference in Japan is that the public transportation network extends throughout most of the country. The traffic situation in Tokyo is testament to the fact that a lot of people do still drive, but Shinjuku station in rush hour gives an idea of the amount of people who have to get to and from work without access to their car’s cigarette lighter. As such, the ~3,000mAh range seems right on the money.

Japanese smartphone manufacturers don’t really need to hit big internationally to have a strong impact on the industry. The Japanese market is big enough that they can do it from home. If Kyocera and Sharp eat up enough of Apple’s, Samsung’s and, to a lesser extent, Sony’s market share, then we’ll start to see battery life being taken a lot more seriously. If that happens, we might just see the major manufacturers releasing Japan-only models with bigger batteries – or see changes implemented across the board. Let’s hope that it’s the latter, because I for one long for the day when I don’t find myself in a state of panic every time I forget to pack my charger.

Image: Samsung