I was intrigued this morning by the NYT article about the 67 new emojis under review. More about that process in a few minutes. But, first, a little information about how emojis were started.
In 1995, NTT Docomo, one of Japan’s largest mobile phone companies, added a heart symbol to its Pocket Bell devices. It became an instant hit, particularly with millions of high school kids. Market share of Docomo rose to 40%. However, apparently the “suits” took over and decided to abandon the heart symbol and replace it with Latin alphabet support and kanji, a system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters. Customers immediately jumped ship for Tokyo Telemessage. Docomo needed a killer app. Enter Shigetaka Kurita and the emoji.
Mr. Kurita was part of the team working on i-mode, designed to be the world’s first widespread mobile internet platform. Mr. Kurita and others visited San Francisco in 1998 to learn more about AT&T’s Pocket Net, the first cellular service to offer email and weather forecasts. It wasn’t fast- 19.2 Kbps- about 500 to 1,000 times slower than what we use today. Not only was it slow, but Japanese people were having a hard time getting used to the shorter, more casual nature of email as compared to long, verbose letters full of the sender’s emotions. They liked face to face conversation, telephone calls or long letters. Digital communication seemed to create misunderstandings and was void of warmth.
That’s when Mr. Kurita decided he could add faces, since he knew a heart would work. He grabbed some paper and a pencil and created 176 12×12 pixel characters. He wanted to cover the entire breadth of human emotion and looked to different elements of his childhood, including kanji and manga, a Japanese comic book.
With only a 12×12 grid, Mr. Kurita had to simplify his designs. The original grinning face has a rectangular mouth and upside-down Vs for eyes. His bullet train was lopsided. But, no worries, Kurita never envisioned them as art images, but rather as symbols. Docomo couldn’t get a copyright for the symbols and, subsequently, competitors launched their own emoji designs.
Standardization of the emoji came through a group called the Unicode Consortium. The group includes executives from Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech giants. Unicode was started in the late 1980s to develop a standardized code for text characters. They assign for every letter, number, symbol and punctuation mark, including an emoji, a specific number that a computer will recognize. Obviously, manufacturers will only use approved emojis with a computer number.
The consortium released Unicode Standard version 6.0 in October 2010 with 722 approved characters. Unicode 7.0 added 250 characters. Unicode 8.0 (released June 2015) added another 41 emojis including cricket bats, tacos, and signs of the Zodiac. And, now they are reviewing 67 hopefuls.
In deciding which emojis to add, the Consortium considers compatibility (with current emojis), frequency of use, and completeness. For example, the group added a mosque, a synagogue and a generic place of worship to complement the Christian church that was already included. This current group of wannabes also includes a large number of sports icons. That is to accommodate people watching the Olympics.
After the vote next May, the final version 9.0 will be issued in June. From there, manufacturers determine which ones they will add to their lineup of emojis on their phones. For users, there are lots of categories: people, nature, food and drink, celebration, activity, travel and places, flags, and objects and symbols. With over 1,000 emojis available and more on their way, it’s a great way to end a text message or a blog. Cheers!