Last year, when I was covering the Mobile World Congress, I noticed my Chinese colleague constantly holding her phone horizontally - pizza-style - and addressing the microphone.
How do you tell Chinese from Japanese?
You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve been asked this question, as if I’m some sort of expert. Needless to say, I’ve always struggled for an answer.
Now, I’m happy to report that I finally have the definitive answer. It’s all about how an Asian person holds his or her smartphone while speaking into it.
This conclusion derives from keen observations by a former colleague who is Japanese and travels to China often.
Picture yourself in Shenzhen airport, he said. As you wait for your flight, you spot a lot of Asian businessmen and tourists holding their phones flat (parallel to the floor, like a slice of pizza) and talking into the microphone. These people are pretty much all Chinese. You rarely see Japanese people talking into a smartphone mike.
How do you hold your iPhone when you speak to it?
As my ex-colleague was explaining this, suddenly everything made sense.
Last year, when I was covering the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I also noticed my Chinese colleague, Alice Sun, EE Times China’s esteemed mobile technology analyst, constantly holding her phone horizontally -- pizza-style – and addressing the microphone, unlike the rest of us pressing our phones to our ears.
Alice wasn’t talking to a person. She was talking to her “device” to look up places on a map or her next appointment, searching for contact information, etc.
Belatedly, I’ve realized that this is a rare instance of consumers’ high-tech device usage exposing the clear, behavioral and cultural differences of people around the globe.
When I was a teenager, living in Connecticut as a foreign exchange student, my Western friends used to offer their wisdom on differences in Chinese and Japanese, usually dwelling on the slant or roundness of Asian eyes.
Of course, these was sweeping speculation from kids who’d grown up in neighborhoods where hardly any Asians lived. The simple truth is that most Asians themselves can’t tell the difference, either.
Dress used to be a much more dependable ethnic marker. But we’re losing that measure as China (and Korea, too) grows more affluent and adopts a more “global” sense of fashion. Orlon, once China’s default fabric, is fast disappearing.
Why the behavioral difference?
For the moment, as far as I can tell, smartphones offer a much better clue.
More important, this behavioral difference -- how you use your smartphone -- reveals the revolutionary changes Chinese consumers are bringing to user-interface technology. Smartphone users in China are clearly way ahead of the rest of the world in embracing the voice-first UI and taking advantage of its genuine effectiveness.
But before further analyzing the implications, I need to figure out a couple of things. First, why have Chinese been so quick to exploit voice input, compared to consumers everywhere else?
Next page: Market research on voice assistants