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Emerging PC design shows Japanese influence

Svelte, attractive PCs are all the rage in the United States, partially thanks to Japan.

Svelte, attractive PCs are all the rage in the United States, partially thanks to Japan.

Small is big in the second-largest PC market in the world, and the result has been a progression of ever-thinner mobile computers and slimmer desktops that pack in moderate yet compelling features. Now, American PC makers are beginning to take some cues.

One of the Japanese market's most pronounced trends appears to be the "Ekisho Desukutopu," or LCD desktop computer. The design is currently making its way to U.S. consumers. Gateway was one of the first to bring an all-in-one flat panel originally for the Japanese market, its Profile PC, to the United States. Dell Computer late last month released its WebPC, a cylindrical consumer PC with a flat-panel option.

"Japan is an

On the cutting edge of design
Japanese companies have been behind some key new designs and technologies:
Hi-Note Ultra (1995): First successful ultrathin notebook designed by DEC, made by Citizen.

Sony Vaio Z505: This ultrathin is all the rage this year.

Sony music clip: This tiny electronic clip saves music for playback on the PC.

Super-slim DVD drives: Toshiba, Matsushita, others make these for space-saving desktops and notebooks.

LCDs: Japan pioneered commerical production of LCDs and supplies many of the thin LCDs on notebooks and builds many of the all-in-one LCD desktops.

excellent place to observe how people are using new technology," said Carl Everett, senior vice president of the Personal Systems Group at Dell, who often visits the Akihabara district in Tokyo, the retail mecca of computer and consumer electronics technology.

Although an oft-cited lack of space plays a role, miniature is Japan's reigning aesthetic. Both attributes have spawned a market less concerned with performance and more attuned to size.

Meanwhile, Japanese style seems to be growing everywhere in the United States these days. Japanese animation, ranging from Pokemon to the film "Princess Mononoke," is gaining in popularity.

U.S. manufacturers are taking these lessons to heart. Along with the WebPC from Dell, HP and Compaq Computer will come out with smaller, more colorful PCs for the corporate market next year.

Sony released a number of slick gadgets at the Comdex trade show this year. Music Clip, for instance, uses a built-in 64MB flash memory chip to allow copying of music for playback on its PCs. Along with new products, the company has started a magazine, Sony Style, and opened retail outlets such as San Francisco's Metreon.

But ultimately not all of this will fly, according to analysts. "Japan feeds us to some degree, but it's a bit of a red herring. Some of their designs seem odd to us, even if they are more compact," according to Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corp.

"Most products coming here from there need some modification." But he adds: "In the history of electronic design, however, Japan has done well with small cool devices. There's no reason to believe that the Japanese won't have a larger role in PC design, as style becomes a more important buying criterion here in the U.S."

The forces that drive this new technology include "the need for miniaturization of everything which is driven by the spatial realities in Japan [and the fact that] Japanese companies have a very different R&D model. Since they are not short-term profit driven they can do many experiments to see what works," Everett said.

Everett also points out that Sony VAIO Z505RX Japan is also on the cutting edge of application of the smallest of devices--cell phones and pagers.

"What is also going on in Japan that caught my eye was the use of wireless. Email is flying via cell phones...This was the seed that caused me to cultivate relationships with Aironet," he added.

Toshiba supplies many of the slim DVD-ROM drives for notebooks. Other innovations are expected in the future, according to industrial designers. One change that may occur: flexible battery material. This will allow designers to hide batteries in irregular-shaped recesses in product designs.

More than any other U.S. computer maker, IBM has been at the vanguard of bringing designs first marketed in Japan to the States. IBM has a long history of selling computers in that market and runs a massive Japan-based operation that includes some of Big Blue's best R&D facilities, a thriving PC business and a manufacturing concern that produces LCD screens.

The design of IBM's sleekest laptop computers, including the first popular thin notebook from any PC maker, the ThinkPad 560, is done primarily at a research facility in Yamato, Japan. IBM for many years has also sold handheld notebooks in Japan, a concept just now making its way across the Pacific in the form of products such as the WorkPad z50.

Dwarfish designs popular in Japan are an opportunity to break from the past, according to David Hill, the Design Manager for IBM's personal systems group and handles industrial design for all of IBM's personal computer products.

"The PC hasn't basically changed since the early 1980s," Hill said. "You can change the color, but it's still the same box. New form factors give us a chance to change the fundamental building blocks [of the PC and] opens up new areas of exploration."

Behind the success of many of the popular IBM ThinkPad models is Richard Sapper, a consultant for IBM who has also designed a number of highly acclaimed gadgets including the Tizio Lamp, an item on display at the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum. Sapper has consulted for companies including Daimer-Benz, Fiat and Siemens and works in concert with the IBM development team in Japan, according to Hill.

"His idea is a simple black box that reveals itself as a computer," said Hill.

IBM ironically has not recently turned any heads with novel ThinkPad or desktop designs, but will try to change that in the coming year. Hill said that there are designs in the works that stress portability and wireless connections in the home.

These computers will put less stress on gee-whiz technology and more on practicality. "It's like a cupholder in a mini-van," he says, emphasizing that an obsession with computer "speeds-and-feeds" overlooks simple necessities sometimes.

Tastes they are a-changin'
Along with these utilitarian forces, tastes are changing in the United States. Consumers, for instance, are now beginning to crave the same tiny notebooks that the Japanese do, evidenced by the popularity of ultrasmall notebooks including Sony's Vaio, Compaq's M300 and IBM's ThinkPad 240, as well as those from Toshiba, Taiwan's Acer, Sharp and Fujitsu.

If the trends seen in Japanese computer magazines can be considered a glimpse of the future of the PC, it may be interesting indeed. Japanese PC monthlies are chock full of advertisements and articles--along with a copious helping of photographs of scantily-dressed woman clutching computers--about tiny notebooks and space-saving desktops. Dell Japan, for instance, more often than not does full-page glossies of only its slimmest computers. In Besuto PC ("Best PC"), a monthly publication, a Dell advertisement for its thin desktop shows an accompanying graphic on how it saves space. The Dell advertisement on the following page shows its newest ultraslim notebooks.

Advertising pages are also crammed with desktop PCs coupled with 15-inch LCDs from Compaq Japan, NEC, Fujitsu, Sony, Hitachi, Panasonic and Akia aimed at the home.

"The largest market for LCD monitors is Japan," IBM's Hill said. IBM Japan has been ahead of the United States unit in moving to more portable desktop computers. Hill said IBM sells an all-in-one LCD-based desktop only in Japan because the market demands it.