Electronic dictionaries: dead gadgets walking

Back in the 1980s and 90s, stand-alone word processors were all the rage in Japan. It was before PCs found widespread adoption in Japan, and because of the large character set of the Japanese language, it took years of training to be able to "type" Japanese on a mechanical device. I fondly remember a word processor (γƒ―γƒΌγƒ—γƒ­ / "waapuro") that I owned back in the 90s.

As PC ownership increased, however, demand for dedicated word processors waned. Toshiba, the first company to make a Japanese-language dedicated word processor, ended support of its last model in 2006.

Excerpt from the article (translated by me):

Toshiba has announced that it will end support of its Rupo series of stand-alone word processors at the end of March [2006]. In September 1978, Toshiba became the world's first manufacturer to release a Japanese-capable word processor, the JW-10. This announcement marks the end of a three-decade word processor business.

The waapuro occupied a window of time similar to that of the electronic typewriter in the English-speaking world, slightly longer due to the slower uptake of PCs in Japan and the unsuitability of mechanical typewriters for the Japanese language.

Stand-alone electronic dictionaries are now going through the same decline. As smart phones and netbooks become more capable, dedicated devices like electronic dictionaries aren't cost effective, and they take up too much space as well.

When you can buy a netbook for the retail price of an electronic dictionary, the choice seems pretty much a no-brainer to me. True, electronic dictionaries come with a nice collection of dictionaries that you'd have to pay for otherwise, but those dictionaries are locked to your device: buy a new device, and you've got to buy your dictionaries all over again.

In terms of cost of ownership, it's a better deal to buy the CD versions of the dictionaries you need, and keep them as you migrate devices. Most of these dictionaries are available online now anyway, many of them for free. I personally subscribe to the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary service, which includes a vast selection of top-notch J-J and J<->E dictionaries.

This electronic dictionary from Sharp includes an impressive array of dictionaries. But priced at ¥36,750 (about US $393 at today's exchange rate), it's about what you'd pay for a netbook. Sharp must be having trouble getting this thing off the shelves, because the same product is available at Amazon Japan for just ¥7,830 (about US $83).

Even at this price, though, these devices don't hold a lot of attraction for me. I got my son a netbook (a Dell Mini 10) for his birthday, and I've been eying it jealously ever since. It seems much more attractive to have a device that can do everything that an electronic dictionary can do, as well as everything else that a real computer can do.

This is especially true now, when most translators I know rely far more on Google than dictionaries.

I predict that the portable electronic dictionary is going to go the way of the stand-alone "waapuro" within a couple of years.

12 comments to Electronic dictionaries: dead gadgets walking

  • Ryan, I laughed out loud reading this post, remembering the “waapuro” that I got for my first year of college in 1993. It was a Brother, about the size of a microwave oven with the keyboard attached by a curly telephone-cord thing and I *loved* it. I’m definitely with you on the appeal of the netbook. I got an Asus Eee for use while traveling this summer and I am a convert! It set me back US $399 and even though it’s the largest model (10 inch screen), it fits in a messenger bag so I take it with me everywhere. When I had it lying on the table (in its neoprene sleeve) at a translators association meeting, someone said “I can’t believe that’s a computer, I thought it was a clutch purse.” Personally I find it a good substitute not only for things like electronic dictionaries but also as a quasi-smartphone. Here in the US, WiFi is now so pervasive that if I’m someplace that doesn’t have WiFi access, I’m generally there because I don’t want to think about work; otherwise if I’m out of the office and need to check e-mail, I just use my netbook. No contract fees and it’s a lot easier to compose a real e-mail on it than on a Blackberry. Thanks for the “waapuro” memories!

  • me7c7v

    Okay, so this comment is a couple days late, but…I was thinking about this article for a little while.

    I liked your point, but I’m not convinced that the electronic dictionary itself is a “dead device walking”. Maybe it is for translators, but other people use them as well, particularly students. I bought my Sharp electronic dictionary almost five years ago during a year long high school exchange in Osaka, and I still use it every day. I’m probably just not connected to the right online dictionaries, but for me the ability to easily and quickly look up an unfamiliar kanji, and then jump instantly to a list of compounds, and then to a japanese/english definition is really useful–and I can take my little denshi jisho with me anywhere. I’ll admit that looking up kanji, in particular, is vastly easier on my dictionary than on any website I’ve ever tried. No high schooler, Japanese or American, (that I know of) brings a laptop to school to use during the lesson; and even at the University level, I can use the electronic dictionary in small language classes where laptops were inappropriate. Yet the encyclopedia allows one to discreetly zone out while appearing studious!

    My Japanese classmates used electronic dictionaries in Japanese (kokugo) and Classical Japanese (koten) class, as well as English.

    Also, for the more casual foreigner attempting to learn Japanese or get by in Japan, the portability of the electronic dictionary definitely gives it an edge; you can’t slip a netbook into a small purse, or quickly look up a word when you’re stumped in the department store. The electronic dictionary is less obtrusive to sit down and read a book with; it’s smaller, and I’m probably not the only person very easily sidetracked when on the internet (compulsive email checking, anyone?).

    Furthermore, in those situations, you might be out of range of internet, or the internet could be slow.

    I know you were talking about the dictionaries used for professional purposes rather than academic, but since you made a rather blanket statement about their prospects, I hope my defense is not too off-topic πŸ™‚

  • @me7c7v

    You’ve got a good point, although I should point out that even after they’ve become obsolete, devices can limp along in niche uses for some years. That’s basically what happened with the stand-alone word processor — students and people who weren’t comfortable with computers continued to use them for years.

    But there is something to be said about a dead-simple appliance like an electronic dictionary. Ebook readers like the Kindle also seem to be gaining ground. History will show whether these devices have a place in the computing landscape.

    I think your size concerns are mostly unfounded, though: I’ve seen PDA-like devices about the size of an electronic dictionary that will still run Linux and hold multiple gigabytes.

    Most of the major dictionaries are available on CD now, as well: Kojien, the Green Goddess, etc. Programs like Jamming make searching multiple dictionaries a snap.

    Also, I’m pretty sure that computing devices like smart phones, PDAs, netbooks, and laptops are common on college campuses. Even back when I was in college, kids were bringing in laptops to their lectures.

  • Mameha

    Slightly off-topic but I would be interested to know how fast the netbook loads gmail and google docs in a browser (Chrome or Firefox) compared to on a decent desktop.

  • @Mameha

    It seems pretty snappy. My son doesn’t use gmail, but he’s usually got Firefox/YouTube, Thunderbird, and instant messaging running at the same time. The netbook has a middling processor and only has 1 GB of RAM, but it’s got a solid state hard drive, which in addition to being absolutely silent, reads data much faster than magnetic hard drives. Boot time is lower than an older desktop, apps start up in a reasonable time, and even complex web pages load very quickly.

  • Mameha

    Interesting. I was shocked to see the DELL ones for $350 with decent specs, having paid $1200 for a laptop from DELL only last year. I regretfully realise now I can live with only a browser for google apps. In fact I really think 75% of home PC users could use a netbook and google apps and have no MS software. You would only need a windows PC to play games or run business apps like Adobe Photoshop.

    Going back on-topic, I still think though that they are too big and slow to start up (10 secs even would be too long) to replace denshi-jisho in the short term.

  • @Mameha

    That’s true about boot times, but if you keep the netbook in hibernation mode, it wakes up pretty quickly, and it will last for a good amount of time in that mode. Battery life is about 2-4 hours, depending on what you’re doing, which is another area where the electronic dictionary wins — for now πŸ™‚

  • Mameha

    I guess iPhone can be the denshi-jisho killer, presumably it already has translation applications.

    If it could scan text too using the built in digital camera, now that would be awesome.

  • anjiera thomas

    As other posters have mentioned, not all of us are at a netbook with easy access to the internet. That being said, I’d love to have a netbook-jisho that compared to the ease of use of my Canon Wordtank.

    Do you know of any PC-based dictionaries that can be combined under one interface, and can be used to jump between entries, as me7c7v mentioned?

    My netbook is running Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and it is really quite quick. I have Japanese input available with a keyboard shortcut, and even though it doesn’t have a Japanese keyboard, the IME works well enough. Even still, without decent full-coverage dictionary software, I find I take my netbook and denshi-jisho with me to the library when I want to get some studying done (I’m not quite fluent in conversational japanese), and that seems to give me the best of both worlds.

    me7c7v: I graduated from a Canadian university majoring in Computer Hardware Engineering (Compsci + Electrical engineering) about 4 years ago, and quite a large number of my peers brought laptops to class. They’re especially great when you’ve got a terrible prof – you can play network games as they read you the textbook, instead of being bored to tears. My brother is in his 2nd year of CompSci at the moment, and he said that most of his peers are bringing either laptops or (this year) netbooks to class with them, since a lot of profs are giving lectures with online references, and since it makes it easier than carrying around a backpack full of binders and treeware. So, in some places it sounds like laptops in the classroom are becoming quite common, though i can’t comment on high schoolers.

  • @anjiera thomas

    I’d normally recommend that you check out Jamming, but it only runs on Windows and Macintosh.

    I saw Jim Breen with an Acer netbook running Linux at the last IJET, and I have another friend with a PDA running Linux who does translation work on it, so I’m sure that there are tools available for Linux as well.

  • When the Kindle first came out a couple of years ago I considered it to be an overpriced gimmick. I was very surprised that they were selling any of them, let alone as many as they did. It seemed way overpriced for an e-book reader. However, as time passed I talked to some Kindle owners and all of them raved about the device.

    A few weeks ago when the Kindle 2 was announced it was around my birthday. I read many positive reviews about the Kindle 2 and it started to interest me. It had been a bad year for me because my wife had died last summer. I was anticipating a downer of a birthday and I pre-ordered a Kindle on a whim (an expensive one, I know) as a birthday gift to myself. At the time I was fully expecting that I’d just cancel the order before the ship date, but I never did.

    Now that I’m Kindle owner and I love it. I take it everywhere. It’s great waking up and having the newspaper ready to read; about an hour before the hardcopy arrives (I have to remember to cancel that). I’m an avid reader and like the fact that I have a great selection of blogs, magazines, and books, always with me.

    Other people have listed the pros and cons of the device. I won’t repeat these. Sure there are some things that could be improved, and yes, the device is somewhat costly. However never anticipated I would find so much value in my Kindle.

  • No whining about this product. It is the biggest breakthrough in information exchange since the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. Very soon, it will be in everyone’s pocket, saving trees, educating all of us…maybe saving the newspaper/magazine industry. And imagine the reduction in education costs when school kids from primary through grad school can download their text books into their Kindle’s. (And the text to speech feature really works!)

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