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Why America Lags Behind the World’s Top Technology Leaders

Japanese Toilet
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How many times have you come across a really cool tech product, only to discover it’s not available here in the good old USA? Sure, you can buy a kabillion run-of-the-mill MP3 players if you want, but zip on down to the local Mega Mart for a toothbrush-shaped video camera that takes up close and personal footage of all your nasty cavities, and you’ll come up empty every time.

Due to a variety of circumstances, Americans miss out, at least temporarily, on a lot of great stuff. From economical subcompact cars to robots, we lag behind. But why? Let’s take a look at many of the specific high-tech arenas where the United States chases behind other countries, and then get to the bottom of its technologically stunted growth.

The Great Divide

To begin to get a feel for the delay tech experiences on its way across the Pacific, first take a gander at the automotive world. Honda’s subcompact Fit, first released in Japan in 2001, in Europe (as the “Jazz”) in 2002, and in much of the rest of the world by 2004, didn’t see the light of day in America until 2006. Why? Honda was unsure that the American car buyer would accept such a small, economical automobile. Yet today the Fit is viewed as one of the best small cars available domestically.

Honda FitThe same story goes for Mazda’s slick Mazda2. Winner of the prestigious World Car of the Year award in 2008, the Mazda2 will nonetheless not turn up stateside until the 2011 model year – and even then after it’s been altered somewhat and possibly rebadged as a Ford Fiesta. Or look at Honda’s Civic Type R. Built in Britain and in a weird turn of events exported to Honda’s Japanese homeland, this highly praised pocket rocket won’t be available here until 2010 – or later. And let us not forget Ford’s 65 MPG ECOnetic, a car that runs on “clean” diesel. Because diesel fuel is heavily taxed in America, and there is some doubt in the minds of Ford execs that the tiny ECOnetic would fly in a country where monster gas guzzlers continue to chew up roadway, you still can’t buy one in the States.

But cars are just part of the story. As we’ve already found out, robots are another.

In Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, robots are part of the everyday landscape. In Tokyo, enormous remote controlled rescue bots such as the giant dustpan named Robokiyu work tirelessly to pull victims of explosions and other fiery events from the rubble of such disasters. Handmade, interactive “Mental Commitment Robots” shaped like baby harp seals and developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology assist patients with degenerative mental conditions.

But not all robots are destined for public service work. Look no further than Flower Robotics’ “Palette,” a full-torso robotic mannequin that exists only for the purpose of selling commercial goods. Bedecked with clothing or jewelry or both, Palette resides quietly at the sales counter, looking for all the world like a typical mannequin. But when a shopper approaches, the unit’s built-in sensors and mechanics go to work, detecting and reacting to the positioning and location of said shopper. Initially, Palette assumes one or more of a variety of pre-programmed poses to best display the items in question. It then senses human reactions to its generic movements and adapts to the situation, posing and essentially behaving in such a way that the customer’s attention remains focused.

FuA-MenUltimately, the above examples of societal robots are just the tip of the iceberg. At the FuA-Men restaurant in Nagoya, autonomous robotic arms will cook your meal. At any toy store in the country of Japan, you’ll find countless mini-robots masquerading as children’s toys.

North America isn’t exactly a robot-free zone, but robots are on an entirely different level throughout much of Asia. Why? Because regional governments say so. In Japan, for instance, the federal government is heavily involved in promoting robotics, with the eventual goal of utilizing the technology as a key cog in the care of the elderly and infirm. The South Korean government is on the same track, going on record saying that it not only wants a robot in every household by 2020, but also that robots will routinely carry out surgery by 2015.

Mobile Phones: A World Away

With that in mind, let’s get back to the initial question: Why is it that we here in the USA seem to so often lag behind when new high-tech consumer gadgets are introduced? To begin to formulate an answer, we’ll start with the one device that seems, over and over again, to look so much better when dressed in foreign guise: the mobile phone. Why is it that the Japanese continuously get all those way cool features before we do?

Sharp SH002As impressed as you might be with the iPhone, phones in other countries are still leagues above on cool features. For instance, in Japan, you can use your cell phone to watch over-the-air television broadcasts via its built-in TV tuner. You can use it as a wallet, purchasing everything from clothing to accommodations via mobile-based smartcards. You can take it into the shower with you because it’s water resistant. In fact, the upcoming Sharp SH002, available only in Japan, not only resists water, but is also fitted with a solar panel for additional talk time even after the batteries are drained. The unit also features a five-megapixel camera, Bluetooth and Wi- Fi connectivity, built-in GPS, mobile wallet functionality, a 2GB memory card, an optional Bluetooth pedometer to help you calculate burned calories, and of course, the obligatory TV tuner.

The truth is that many of these functions and features are slowly being integrated into North American cell and smart phones. Barcode-scanning apps for the iPhone, for instance, give those phones the features Japan has had for years, like the ability to check online prices with a simple scan of a box at a retail store. Yet it’ll take us a long time to catch up with the level of sophistication already commonplace in the Japanese market.

Watch the Gap

So why are we so far behind? For starters, there’s that nasty “G” word again – government. In the USA, many would argue, the federal government has allowed itself to be pushed about by a few, now rather large, wireless carriers. Unlike much of the developed world, the vast majority of mobile phones in the US are available only in package deals, where the consumer must tether themselves to a particular provider and service contract. Such roadblocks do not exist elsewhere, freeing up the market and allowing technology to grow.

Inevitably, infighting between providers retards the potential for growth and speed, and has done so for quite some time. So is it any wonder that mobile phone culture has matured more rapidly in regions not stifled by the whims of carriers? Is it any wonder that mobile phone manufacturers introduce hot new features not here in America, but elsewhere, where restrictions aren’t quite so onerous? And is it any wonder that in a land where many of us are actually forced to switch our physical phones when we switch carriers, evolution is so hard to find?

Japan mobile phone cultureBut there’s more to the mobile phone technology disparity than carrier hassles. Generally speaking, mobile phones were introduced in developed Asia at a time when PC broadband access hadn’t yet been firmly established. Much of Asia actually lagged so far behind North America in Internet connection speeds that the first taste of broadband for many Asians was through a mobile phone. So when faced with the choice between a stay-at-home monster PC as a broadband access tool, or a lightweight, portable device, many opted for the latter. That, in turn, spurred even more growth in the mobile arena. Soon, governments offered tax breaks for infrastructure development and subsidies for broadband construction. Concerned businesses were groomed to expect lower profit margins, and taxpayers were asked to dole out a few more dollars.

Today, America is nowhere near the top when it comes to Internet broadband speed. The figures differ from one survey to another, but the general consensus is that we sit in the middle of the pack, far behind countries such as South Korea and Japan, and regions such as Europe. That, of course, is just one more reason the Japanese can watch all that over-the-air TV on their mobile phones – they live in a land where broadband speeds allow them to.

We’ve also fallen from the top ten when it comes to broadband penetration. The Brookings Institution, a non-profit independent research firm based in Washington, DC, says the USA ranks no greater than fifteenth among industrialized nations. And a Strategy Analytics survey says the US is in twentieth position in household broadband use.

Blu-rayThe Wal-Mart Factor

Looking at the consumer tech sector in general, other also factors come into focus. Here in America, despite all our internationally-perceived bravado to the contrary, we’re…cheap. And comparatively cautious. To say that the US consumer is spurred by one chief factor – price – isn’t much of a stretch.

Take Blu-ray, for example. Despite the visual, audible, and practical advantages of Blu-ray over DVD, the adoption process is dead slow. Why? The one reason pronounced over and over again in the press, on the street, and in most discussion groups, is that the players (and the movies) aren’t yet cheap enough. Combine this with the promise of easily downloadable movies sometime in the future, and it’s clear that we’re simply too thrifty and too cautious to take the Blu-ray leap. This isn’t a bad thing, but it sits in stark contrast to other affluent nations that seemingly jump on board new technologies.

Society Built for Gadgets

There are, of course, other reasons. Asia houses the global headquarters of many of today’s largest consumer electronics companies, and is also ground zero for much of the manufacturing of such products. Therefore, it would seem to make sense as a region that experiences more product rollouts. And that’s exactly what happens again and again, the Wii Fit and PlayStation Portable being two recent large-scale examples.

KawaiiBut there’s something else at work here. Something that holds the American market back from experiencing the full onslaught of the electronics bonanza that spills out into the streets of Tokyo and Seoul and other large Asian centers. Simply: Asians are gadget-crazy. Many Japanese and Koreans change up their cell phones and portable electronics every few months. Many more adorn their gadgets with ribbons and miniature dolls and other symbols of Japan’s ultra-cute Kawaii culture. And there’s a strong affinity for merging electronics with cuteness at the production line. The result? A rogue’s gallery of electronic-Kawaii hybrids that would likely never find a foothold here in the States.

And let us not forget differences in culture and practicality between the two societies. In Japan, South Korea, and other progressive Asian countries, there are more pedestrians, more urban density, and more long-distance commutes via public transportation. Moreover, personal living spaces are generally far smaller. Put this all together and you have a society that’s seemingly tailor-made for mobile device evolution.

Then there’s the kid factor. In many Asian cities, adolescents and teenagers took to mobile tech in a big way, long before youngsters in North America. Young girls especially became addicted to tech-driven communication, and in many ways propelled the market through their desire for accessories and constant upgrades. And certainly it’s no surprise that in a country where loud behavior is discouraged, text messaging quickly became the preferred method of communication.

Bottom Line

Unless you hop on a Boeing bound for Japan, or pay top dollar to import your own gadgets, most Americans will remain months and years behind those across the globe. Whether it’s due to lack of governmental regulation, a different culture, or just our focus on price, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll hit a wormhole and catch up any time soon. So sit back, pick up your outdated smartphone, and enjoy the knowledge that somewhere in the globe, people are enjoying the future.

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Gordon Goble
Former Digital Trends Contributor
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