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Palm expands to Japan

In one of the latest moves by a mobile computing firm to tap foreign markets, the company announces a Japanese subsidiary that will sell localized versions of popular handheld devices.

Palm has opened its doors for business in Japan, its latest move to make the gadget revolution global.

The company announced today that it has created a Japanese subsidiary that will market versions of Palm's popular handheld devices and its operating system that have been "localized" for the Japanese market.

With its subsidiary, Palm joins the growing list of companies aiming to establish a global consumer presence in the personal communications market. Scandinavian giants Nokia and Ericsson have been rapidly crafting alliances with a number of high-tech players to expand their respective cellular communications markets.

Similarly, Palm licensee Handspring opened European headquarters earlier this week, with the company's CEO talking of plans to also expand into Japan, China and other parts of Asia.

The goal of these divergent plans is in many ways the same: Each company wants its device to become the favored form for wireless communications and portable computing around the world.

Developing products represents one stage in the process, but localizing products, which essentially involves rewiring software and user interfaces, is another.

Companies often enter into the translation process "and then discover that their (coding) scripts have never heard of Japanese," said Coleman Yeaw, e-services manager for Lionbrige, a Waltham, Mass.-based localization specialist. "You can't just say 'Times New Roman' and there you are. There is no Times New Roman in Japanese."

Cultural differences can also stump global ambitions. Companies that want to ship products to India or Pakistan, for instance, have to ensure their efforts match the audience's perception of disputed borders. The target market will also determine whether a certain island gets labeled "Taiwan" or "Territory of China," he added.

In Palm's case, the localization process took roughly 18 months, according to Bowne Global Solutions, which performed the work for Palm. Along with being in Japanese, the feature set of the OS has been reworked for the local market, Bowne said.

Palm's Japanese subsidiary, Palm Computing K.K., said the company will launch Japanese versions of the Palm Vx and Palm IIIc with color displays. The Japanese Palm Vx will be priced at 41,800 yen, or about $396, and the Palm IIIc will be priced at 49,800 yen, or $472.

Craig Will, formerly head of Palm's Asian operations, will serve as representative director of Palm Computing K.K., the company said. The subsidiary will be based in Tokyo.

The company, which went public last month, cited the advanced state of wireless networks and technology on the continent as a driving force behind the move.

"There are incentives to launch new products in Europe and Japan for a number of reasons," said Billy Pidgeon, an analyst at Jupiter Communications.

Palm IIIc Pidgeon pointed to the emergence of the Symbian group, a European consortium of mobile phone makers that recently announced its first reference design for a wireless data device, as another motivator for U.S. companies to address worldwide markets.

"It gives you the ability to have a fabulous test market, especially for connected stuff in areas (like Japan and Europe) where there aren't as many problems with connectivity," he said. Europe shares one common network, GSM, rather than the hodgepodge of networks and carriers found in the United States. "In the U.S., the carriers are very fragmented."

The expansion adds to the momentum Palm has been building over the last several months. Its much-anticipated IPO was one of the largest first-day gains this year, despite falling to Earth soon after. In the last few months the company has released two new products, including its first with a color display, announced numerous licensing and strategic agreements and hired a new CEO, Yankowski.

The device maker currently accounts for about 70 percent of all palm-sized devices sold, according to market research firm International Data Corporation.