Jan. 23, 2008 -- Imagine if the next great piece of literature was written, and read, in IM speak -- on a cell phone, complete with abbreviations and emoticons. "OMG. He wuz ROFL l8r."
For some writers in Japan, that seemingly farfetched writing style has become a reality. Popular, serial short novels tapped out on cell phones as text messages have made the jump from merely electronic entertainment for scores of Japanese commuters to best-selling books. One of these, "Love Sky," has even been made into a movie.
But will Americans ever see shorthand cell phone scribblings on the shelves of Barnes & Noble? Although the trends of tech-savvy Japan often hop across the ocean to descend upon the West, experts debate whether the novelty of cell phone novels will make the cut.
Novel-reading on cell phones gained traction in Japan a few years ago as classic novels made their way to the small cell phone screen. Web sites there now allow people to upload their own versions of self-authored serialized stories to blogs that can be easily read on Japanese cell phones. The stories are often written by amateur writers and typically feature predictable and melodramatic story lines.
More popular stories are made into real novels. Five of 2007's 10 best-selling novels in Japan originally began as cell phone novels, according to The New York Times.
According to Rie Tange, a Japanese woman whose employer recently transferred her to New York, cell phone novels are uniquely popular in Japan because of one thing: a nasty commute via public transportation for many tech-savvy citizens.
"The reason why cell phone novels are popular is because most of people use public transportation to school or office in Japan," Tange told ABCNEWS.com in an e-mail from Japan where she had returned for a short visit. "Most of my co-workers spend at least 30 minutes to come to our office. The train in a morning is so packed. It is impossible to open a book."
Tange, however, is not a fan of the cell phone soap operas, at least in their electronic form.
"The novel thing is popular among only teenager and dull adults," Tange joked. "The story is really easy to predict and cheesy. Those girls that write cell phone novels, they are immature writers and don't have enough skills."
Furthermore, Japanese cell phones and mobile devices are extremely advanced.
"People tend to kill time using their cell phones: sending texts, reading novels, listening [to] music. … So we have a lot of functions in cell phones," she said. "Music download service, Internet function, camera and video function [were] started long time ago, so iPhone wasn't amaz[ing to] me at all, because we already had those functions."
In contrast, Americans are just beginning to flex their cell phones' tech muscles.
While the number of Americans using their phones for things other than making calls increased from 2006 to 2007, the number of people who download music, browse the Internet and watch videos is still small. Only about 5 percent of Americans download music on their phones; slightly more -- 5.6 percent -- listen to music on their phones. An even smaller percentage -- 2.6 percent -- watch videos.
For Japan, it's that intersection between a tech-savvy population, a language written in characters and time spent commuting that make cell phone novels so popular to both read and write and why Americans will probably never see versions of the new novel form, said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley-based technology analyst.
Text messaging is more deeply embedded in Japanese pop culture than it is in American communication, according to Saffo.
"In the first cell phone service in Japan, it was expensive to make calls, but the provider gave away messaging for free. The result was all the high school kids didn't make calls and just messaged," Saffo said. "The writing methods are much more compact in Japanese. You do a couple of keystrokes per character and one character can represent a much bigger concept. The Roman alphabet has a disadvantage for small screens."
In addition to language and cultural barriers, there are technical barriers as well, said Julie Ask, a wireless analyst at Jupiter Research. Ask believes Americans won't want to write (or read) that much on a small cell phone screen.
"Text messaging is limiting, with a 160-character limit and you're using 12-tab text pad, so it would be a laborious process," Ask said.
Instead, she believes consumers will more and more opt for mobile PC-like devices.
"Phones are getting to look more and more like computers, whether it's word processing, listening to music. There are phones that can do those things today," Ask said.
Saffo agrees and believes that the cell phone novel trend in Japan is already making an impact on America in electronic readers like the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle.
"I think that what's happening in Japan is going to remind publishers and consumer electronics manufacturers that people have no problem reading things on screens," he said. "The problem in the United States is that the screens the companies give us are ones that we have to read sitting down," like laptops.
"The Kindle is a device you can read with one hand on a subway strap and one hand on the kindle while you're bouncing along."
Beyond the electronics world, Saffo believes the trend will also inspire a nation of creative types trapped in the bodies of nine-to-fivers, who believe they're too time-strapped to write.
Next time the business man is riding in the train from Long Island, he may not be playing a video game. He may be writing the great American cybernovel," Saffo said.