How emoji conquered the world

In 1995, sales of pagers were booming among Japan’s teenagers, and NTT Docomo’s decision to add the heart symbol to its Pocket Bell devices let high school kids across the country inject a new level of sentiment (and cuteness) into the millions of messages they were keying into telephones every day. Docomo was thriving, with a bona fide must-have gadget on its hands and market share in the neighborhood of 40 percent. But when new versions of the Pocket Bell abandoned the heart symbol in favor of more business-friendly features like kanji and Latin alphabet support, the teenagers that made up Docomo’s core customer base had no problem leaving for upstart competitor Tokyo Telemessage. By the time Docomo realized it had misjudged the demand for business-focused pagers, it was badly in need of a new killer app. What it came up with was emoji.
Shigetaka Kurita is the man who created emoji, and during his time at Docomo he saw the shift happen first-hand. He was part of the team working on i-mode — a project that was just beginning to take shape, but would be the world’s first widespread mobile internet platform, combining features like weather forecasts, entertainment reservations, news, and email. i-mode would prove so popular that it would completely engulf the country, giving Japan’s mobile internet a nearly 10-year lead internationally. Initially, though, the i-mode team needed ideas, and in order to get a look at other work already being done on mobile internet applications, Kurita and others visited San Francisco in 1998 to check out AT&T’s Pocket Net.
It was the first service in the world to provide amenities like email and weather forecasts over a cellular network, and using AT&T’s new cellular digital packet data (CDPD) service, it was capable of transfer speeds of 19.2Kbps. (In comparison, an average US LTE connection today is around 9.6Mbps, or about 500 times faster). “At the time, the specs on the devices were really poor, so they weren’t able to display images, for example,” Kurita explains. Pocket Net had weather news, but things like ‘cloudy’ and ‘sunny’ were just spelled out in text. The lack of visual cues made the service more difficult to use than it ought to be, and Kurita recognized that AT&T’s mobile experience would benefit majorly from some extra characters for displaying contextual information.
At this time, Windows 95 had just launched, and email was taking off in Japan alongside the pager boom. But Kurita says people had a hard time getting used to the new methods of communication. In Japanese, personal letters are long, verbose affairs, full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions that convey the sender’s goodwill to the recipient. The shorter, more casual nature of email lead to a breakdown in communication. “If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling,” says Kurita. “You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head.”
Face to face conversation, and even the telephone, let you gauge the other person’s mood from vocal cues, and more familiar, longer letters gave people important contextual information. The promise of digital communication — being able to stay in closer touch with people — was being offset by this accompanying increase in miscommunication.
“So that’s when we thought, if we had something like emoji, we can probably do faces. We already had the experience with the heart symbol, so we thought it was possible.” ASCII art kaomoji were already around at the time, but they were a pain to enter on a cellphone since they were composed with multiple characters. Kurita was looking for a simpler solution.
Not being a designer himself (he was an economics major), the young Docomo employee’s plan was to draft some ideas to show manufacturers like Sharp, Panasonic, and Fujitsu — large companies with the design resources to throw at the problem. Kurita was surprised to find that the they didn’t immediately share his zeal for the project. “They were like, ‘please, you design them.’ They had a lot of reasons — these were the first devices that supported i-mode, they didn’t have the resources, that kind of thing,” he explains. Faced with few options, he grabbed some paper and a pencil, gathered his team, and, without really knowing what he was doing, got to work. He aimed to create a complete set of 176 12-pixel by 12-pixel characters that could cover the entire breadth of human emotion.
For inspiration, Kurita looked to different elements of his childhood, including manga and kanji. “In Japanese comics, there are a lot of different symbols. People draw expressions like the person with the bead of sweat, you know, or like, when someone gets an idea and they have the lightbulb. So there were a lot of cases where I used those as a kind of hint and rearranged things.” From kanji, he took the ability to express abstract ideas like “secret” and “love” in a single character.
In order to display the characters, Docomo decided to exploit an unused region of the Shift JIS Japanese character encoding scheme. Each two-byte code would correspond to a unique image, all of which would come loaded on Docomo cellphones like any other character. Users would then be able to add them to their messages just by selecting them from a grid inside the mail app. Docomo wasn’t only targeting email with emoji, though — the easily accessible images allowed content providers to dress up their i-mode websites. Zagat and Pia were some of the first to provide content for Docomo’s experimental new service, entitling them to a special perk — their logos were part of the original set of emoji installed on the company’s phones, although they were removed after the first contract expired, a year or two later.

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