Japan laps up ultraportables

U.S. computer makers are urgently designing lightweight notebook computers for the Japanese market.

Tom Dunlap
3 min read
U.S. computer makers are urgently designing lightweight notebook computers for the Japanese market, where ultraportable sales are skyrocketing.

Ultraportables--slimmer, lighter, and often more expensive than full-fledged notebooks--have shown signs of catching on in the United States but are well-loved in notebook-happy Japan. Japan accounts for less than 10 percent of the world computer market, but makes up 25 percent of notebook sales.

U.S. manufacturer Gateway recently set up a team of product managers, engineers, designers, and analysts to develop a lightweight notebook for the Japanese market, according to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's largest business daily. The new model will also be sold worldwide, which is not always true of the diminutive models found in Japan.

On Monday, the direct vendor made its first entry into the U.S. ultraportable market. (See related story)

Dell and Compaq also plan to introduce lightweight notebook models. Dell intends to market a portable weighing no more than 4.4 pounds as early as next year, Nikkei said, big for an ultraportable but lighter than a standard notebook.

Meanwhile, IBM and Digital Equipment products now part of Compaq have long been top-sellers in the world's No. 2 market. Big Blue's ThinkPad 560 defined the category and remains the sector's leader, although it is generally thicker than the latest entries, while Digital's ultrathin HiNote was also a breakthrough.

IBM has further done well with tiny mini-notebooks that are not sold in the United States.

U.S. computer makers have been slow to develop lightweight models in part because of their lack of popularity here, where most people travel by car. In Japan, commuters travel by train, where they work while they travel.

"The Japanese like small, compact notebooks," said Takahiko Umeyama, an analyst at International Data Corporation in Japan. "That's why the [Sony] Vaio has been such a hit [in Japan]".

Indeed, Sony, which had virtually no presence in the Japanese notebook market through most of the decade, has zoomed to become one of the market leaders over the last few months because of its Vaio 505. Priced at just under $2,000, it comes with a magnesium case, a Pentium MMX processor, and measures less than an inch thick. Like many of the newer slim notebooks, the Vaio is thinner than ordinary portables but has roughly the same width and breadth, or footprint.

Another part of the ultraportable's growth stems from the fact that vendors have discovered ways to pack more standard features, such as hard drives, into smaller footprints. The cost of certain lines and deluxe features, such as magnesium casing, has also been dropping.

Ironically, some of the PCs makers that pioneered the ultraportable market have not found favor on shelves. Toshiba tried to jumpstart the U.S. market last year with the Libretto, a small-footprint notebook with a Pentium chip. It did not sell very well.

Later in 1997 and early this year, Hewlett-Packard and Mitsubishi entered the market with a magnesium-encased ultraslim model called the Sojourn in the United States and Pedion in Japan. But its high price tag, combined with some battery problems, hurt its chances. The Sojourn has since been reduced to $3,299 with one-year warranty, an HP spokesman said.

HP's OmniBook 800, a small footprint notebook, is also due to be phased out this year.