When on 1 November 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio and James Cameron set foot on the carpet of the Tokyo International Film Festival to premiere the film that would change the history of cinema forever, another event happened that day in the nipon country would also be a milestone for the future of communications. That same date Pioneer had released the innovative second generation mobile DP-211SW, the first phone in Japan capable of sending emails through the newly opened "SkyWalker" service. Its most distinctive feature was a 3" LCD touchscreen display that could be handled manually or with a pen. The touchscreen panel had been introduced by Pioneer in 1996 with the predecessor model (DP-211) making it the first of its kind in Japan, the american IBM Simon launched two years before was the first one in the world. Pioneer only continued this feature in the successor model (DP-212) but it is still quite significant to find a cellphone with touchscreen display ten years before the release of the first iPhone, long before even the word "smartphone" existed.
This semblance with the acclaimed gadget of the early 21st century has given to these Pioneer mobiles a cult status specially among japanese collectors who still remember using it. But another key feature in the terminal, which has been frequently overlooked, will put this phone in a unique place in the Hall of Fame of Technology. The DP-211SW was the first mobile to include a whole set of 90 emojis that could be texted for direct messaging through the Skywalker network. This monochrome set developed after the success of the Heart pictogram during the beepers heyday, laid the foundations for emojis development and introduced for the first time, some of the most used emoticons nowadays. Unlike other sets, this one did not have any emoji related to the service, it just included the emoticons that users would probably most require.
It is possible that many articles have been written about emoji history bypassing this important fact. Especially since MoMA acquired the original DoCoMo set of 1999, this one has been mistakenly considered as the first emoji set for mobiles. But this is not some kind of post-truth that could be hidden for longer, because clear evidence about it has been present right there from the beginning. The emoji of a spouting whale can be clearly seen in an image of the DP-211 SW distributed by Pioneer for press notes. It is just a question of time that the designers of the Skywalker Emojis and the developers behind this innovative mobile phone ahead of its time receive a well-deserved recognition.
One of the pivotal points to understand the mistery surrounding this first emoji set is the tangle of japanese distributors during those years. The first model DP-211 was developed by Pioneer for Digital Tu-Ka, one of the most incipient mobile phones company in the country who distributed it as タイプCA but there are no traces of emojis in this first model. The terminal was upgraded in 1997 for the "Skywalker" service (hence the SW letters at the end of name) to be distributed by the local companies of J-PHONE as J-PE01. The following model, DP-212, was distributed by J-PHONE as J-PE02, by Digital Tu-Ka as タイプCA4 compatible with the "Skywarp" network and as IDO 523G by CdmaOne. "Skywalker" and "Skywarp" merged into the J-SKY service launched on December 1999 and thereafter, all the local distributors were incorporated into Vodafone Japan and, eventually, the SoftBank group.
On April 1999, it was launched an update of this emoji set to adapt it to the new color rich mobiles adding 180 new emoticons. The order (and quite probable the codification of the Shift-JIS standard) of the original 90 emojis remained intact. From then on, this was considered the initial SoftBank set in most of the later references we've found, so considering all the companies involved in development and distribution at that time, we can not be completely sure of which was the company that developed this first monochromatic emoji set.
An unrefutable fact of the DP-211SW is that its total size (133 x 44 x 23 mm.) and weight (136 grames with the bigger size of the Lithium battery) were a regression to bigger terminals at a time when the mobile phones market was evolving to smaller and lighter devices trying to overcome the 'brick' concept of early 90s. Almost 15 years had yet to pass to reverse this trend when companies began launching increasingly larger smartphones with an evolved technology that allowed wider screens using smaller and longer lasting batteries.
Although there is no information about the battery life in continous use (specs were 100 to 150 minutes for continous talk), the behaviour of similar devices and the big size of the screen suggest similar durations when texting or playing with the mobile. Another important handicap that, coupled with the fact that the sensitivity of the screen and its response time were not the most optimal (some of the most usual complaints by users), made this model not the way forward by developers during the following years.
Another curious point is that this pioneering mobile phone with touchscreen already opened the current debate of "button/no button" on the screen to manage the terminal. The mobile phone included a touch pen to ease the use and performance of the slow LCD panel, but anyway distributors decided to add three front buttons on the terminal while Pioneer, as can be seen in pictures, had prototyped the mobile without them. These buttons allowed make quick selections on the display but were also used to receive incoming calls and access the missed calls or phonebook to select the numbers to dial. One of the main differences between the multiple versions of the mobile phone was the shape and size of these three buttons.
The terminal could be handled in vertical and horizontal mode and althogh it did not have any accelerometer to orientate the screen automatically, the mobile phone displays some menus in vertical mode (dialling, games, etc.) and others (setting, selections, etc.) in horizontal mode, taking advantage of a more optimized design for many screens than the typical vertical list. Another plus point for the innovation that this device brought.
From all the available documentation of these terminals, it really caught our attention the lack of information regarding the resolution of the screen. And there is no information of the screen size either, we have calculated a size of 3" for the LCD panel from its total size. Amazingly, resolution or screen size were not such important features 20 years ago.
With just a glance at the rest of the main features, we quickly can observe the technological limitation for communications these mobiles had. The 9600 bps modem restricted emails length to only 128 characters. Memory was not the strongest point either, allowing only store 300 phone numbers or email addresses and saving just 10 missed calls in the DP-211SW and 20 in the DP-212.
Before delving into the skywalker emojis, we would like to stand out that the differences between DP-211SW and DP-212 were virtually minimal. DP-212 was launched on April 1998, just six months after the DP-211SW, and just a feature to store handwritten messages and send them to other users, seems to be the most important difference.
Emojis and Marks
And what about the ninety new monochrome emojis that came with these revolutionary mobiles? Well, after some research, we have been able to find scarce information about them in the websites of manufacturers and distributors. The best (and only) picture we've been able to find of the emoji set is a low resolution screenshot in the pdf manual of the J-PE02 model. Although there are only 69 out of 90 emojis (from position 22 onwards) and the resolution does not make easy a reliable retrieval of the emoticons, at least allows us identify other versions which do not correspond to these first emojis. Helping us with this reference, we've not been able to find currently another image of the skywalker set. There are some similar fonts but not exactly the same one.
But how is it possible that in all the sites related with the "Skywalker" service could not be found a single image of this emoji set? Well, before jumping to hurried conclusions, we've speculated with three main possible reasons, without ruling out that there may be additional considerations or combinations of these ones. The first, for our own bewilderment, is that emojis were not so important back then. In most of the brochures and sites, emojis occupied only a brief line indicating they were included. Ok, we can agree that Pioneer mobiles had a lot of features to highlight, but it is indeed intriguing that, being a common feature, there can not be find more information in any of the sites of other skywalker terminals. What brings us to a second conclusion. We do not know who owned this first emoji set. It could have been a manufacturer, a distributor or even a software company, the owner of this customized version of the SJIS standard. The most plausible reason would point to J-PHONE but we can not ensure it. Depending on who held the rights, this could have restricted to the rest of companies the possibility to print or display the emoji set. Or perhaps, for our last conjecture, it was a marked strategy to avoid that other competition companies replicated or copied directly the pictograms.
Although this article could not have been completed with the publication in a good resolution of the Skywalker Emojis, we are confident that sooner or later, some owner of these classic phones will realize about it and will publish real pictures (the cover has been assembled with Photoshop). And who knows if someday a Museum will acquire this first emoji set and give us a surprise, or even better, that Pioneer and SoftBank could commemorate the 20th anniversary of the DP-211SW release to publish the Skywaker Emojis the way they really deserve.
Until then, we may enjoy another of the really interesting features of these Pioneer mobiles. From the DP-211 model, therefore pre-emoji, Marks (マーク) were included in the OS of the mobiles. They were a collection from 50 to 63 pictograms (depending on the model) used not for messaging but to assign them to contacts for quick identification and search. An emoji version for the profile pictures of contacts. Unlike the emoji set, these marks were printed at good resolution in the J-PE02 manual, so we presume that they probably belong to Pionneer. Some of the Marks had the same motives as the ones used for the emojis: a car, a house, heart and broken heart, a telephone, etc. Although can be clearly observed that the pictograms used for Marks and Emojis were not identical at all. From the pictures we can also deduce a 16x16 pixel size and that they were not completely monochromatic. Some pictograms used a gray colour in addition to black.
After reviewing this device from the distance, I would venture to say that this was my favorite idea in the Pioneer terminals, the perfect icing from the masterminds behind the development of this cellphone. Why don't we use customized emojis to assign them to contacts? Hell yes! I wish I'd have an app to do that right now.
A New Hope
We said before that we've not been able to recover any picture of the skywalker emojis. And that is correct for the ones that were used in mobile phones. But there was an standard page (sm_code) in most of the SKY distributors sites that explained the process to send messages to the skywalker mobiles from any kind of terminal including the landlines. These detailed the tables for the two touch input that allowed with just two numbers choose between kanji characters, latin letters and also the 4 pictograms introduced initially for the beepers: the clock, the telephone, the cup and the heart. In the Kansai Digital Phone from 1998, a GIF image of small size (20 pixels width) of these 4 emojis can still be retrieved thanks to the Wayback Machine. The design of these emoji are quite similar to the ones seen in the J-PE02 manual, so at least we have a good resolution picture for the four emblematic emojis identical (or almost) to the skywalker ones. The pictures were probably converted from their original format to GIF, so the reconstruction we've done of these emojis is purely hypothetical. We've worked with the starting size of the GIFs but we can not discard that the real size of the skywalker emojis was 15x15 pixels as in subsequent sets of SoftBank or 16x16 pixels as in the Pioneer Marks.
This is just a little homage to, what we considere, an important point in the emoji history. So relevant, at least for us, as the creation of the DoCoMo set developed by Mr. Kurita and widely acclaimed as the creator of the first emoji set for mobiles. Notably 63 out of 90 Skywalker Emojis (52 plus 11 clocks) were included later in the first DoCoMo set.
We do not deny that the real designs can differ from the emojis we've rebuilt here. It is also likely that some crucial information could had been overlooked during our research and who knows if a picture of these emoji is still waiting out there to be found. Sky's unlimited. One way or another, time will always discern the truth for those lucky men who want to believe in a better day.
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