by Elizabeth Millard, newsfactor.com
There's no doubt about it: foreign technology can whet your appetite.
Super-lightweight laptops from Japan, feature-packed smartphones from
Europe, and shiny, gotta-get-it devices designed in India, South
Korea, and Taiwan are but a few of the items that currently reside on
tech's cutting edge. But chances are you will never see those gadgets
on store shelves here in the U.S.
A trip to the typical U.S. electronics store suggests many Americans
would gladly shell out some extra cash for high-end lightweight
products. Smaller, lighter, and more-expensive laptops are occupying
an ever-increasing amount of shelf space. Even if a larger percentage
of Japanese and European consumers reach for higher-end products than
their U.S. counterparts, a small percentage of Americans could still
spell big sales.
Why, then, do some innovative products never make it to our shores?
The Corporate Quarantine
Many manufacturers prefer to introduce new electronics in their own
countries, to see what problems may arise before exporting the goods.
There is a strong interest in catching and repairing previously
unknown design defects before hitting the U.S. mass market, where the
cost of a product recall could be disastrous.
Companies must also gauge consumer reaction locally before exporting.
Manufacturers realize that despite extensive consumer testing, it is
important to float a limited quantity of a product and see how well
consumers react to it before opening the floodgates-only to find less
demand than anticipated.
Some products are at a performance disadvantage in the U.S., like
cutting-edge smartphones that do not mesh well with the current state
of American telecom services, and videophones that operate much better
in countries that have higher-speed wireless networks. The faster the
network, the smoother the video will appear. In general, Japanese and
Korean telecommunications companies have been quicker to provide
faster connections than those offered in the U.S., so consumers in
those countries are presented with more-advanced phones and
Plus, according to a major player in this game, the U.S. tech market
tends to take its cue from big business, not John Q. Public.
"In Japan, where a majority of the cutting-edge innovation occurs,
they're driven by consumer demand. In the U.S., we're mainly driven by
business needs. That's why you see more of an emphasis on cheap
laptops than on lightweight machines," says Douglas Krone, chief
executive of Dynamism.com, an online site that sells technology not
found on the shelves of U.S. retail stores.
Smaller, Faster, Better?
In addition to corporate strategies driven by the bottom line, there
are cultural preferences to consider.
Japanese consumers do not flinch at spending the equivalent of $3,000
or more on a laptop as long as it has the most up-to-date technology
and weighs less than 2 pounds, Krone says. Consumers in Japan, and
many in Europe, will spend more to enjoy the fruits of innovation
rather than use a laptop or gadget that is just "good enough" for
American consumers, on the other hand, are more interested in lower
prices than lighter weights, which makes top-of-the-line electronics a
difficult sell in this country, Krone says.
Yuni Sucippo, vice president of I-Cube, another Web site offering
products from beyond U.S. borders, agrees. "Americans, in general,
tend to like big, powerful notebooks," she says. "They want everything
in there, as much storage as they can get, as fast as it can go, as
big as possible. But they end up carrying around 10 pounds of
Shoppers on I-Cube value lighter notebooks that may not offer as much
performance or capacity as those preferred by the typical American
consumer, but instead boast ultra portability. To be sold on the site
as a light notebook, a computer must weigh less than 4 pounds, and
most units meeting that requirement are not available in the United
The same holds true at Dynamism.com. For example, the lightest PC on
the global market, the 1.2-pound Sony Vaio U50, is not sold in
America. The U50 is smaller than a portable DVD player and has an
external foldable keyboard. Although this laptop might appeal to
people who crave the ultimate in mobility, most U.S. corporate users
would pass on it, Krone says.
Too Much To Chew
Some companies in Europe and Japan do not enter the U.S. market
because their profit margins are razor-thin. Even U.S. companies like
IBM and Hewlett-Packard have stepped away from certain kinds of
equipment in favor of technology that produces more revenue. Foreign
companies that decide to sell their most-innovative products to
Americans would have to set up extensive customer-service operations,
which could be cost-prohibitive given the massive size of the
U.S. market. Dynamism.com tries to fill this gap by providing customer
service and tech support for all the equipment it sells, acting as a
go-between for consumers and companies like Sony, Nuvo, Xacti, and
Even if sufficient demand for these products emerges, there are legal
issues to consider. For example, patent law in Japan and Europe is
different than in the U.S. Exporting a wealth of technology and then
trying to protect valuable patents might be more trouble than many
companies are willing to undertake-especially smaller manufacturers
that might not yet have a corporate presence in America.
"Sometimes, it just doesn't make sense for a company to spend the time
and effort to get patents here and do the enforcement necessary just
to sell here," says Steve Kelber, an attorney at the law firm of
Merchant & Gould.
That could change with the Patent Reform Act of 2005, which would make
the U.S. law so similar to that in other countries that it would be
much easier for companies to protect their rights. The bill was
introduced in June of last year by Rep. Lamar S. Smith (news, bio,
voting record) (R-TX) and is still awaiting passage.
On the Horizon
Even if patent reform takes hold in the U.S., shoppers seeking niche
items will likely continue to visit sites like Dynamism.com and
Some people may want the hard-to-find gadgets because no one else has
them-kind of the geek equivalent of haute couture. But, Sucippo says,
most customers are simply frustrated by the lack of truly portable
options at their local computer retailers. I-Cube attracts tech
aficionados who buy items as soon as they become available, she says,
even if they have recently purchased a similar product on the site.
"The ones who buy like this are a smaller group, but they're growing,"
she says. "With the amount of people who travel and work now, there's
more appreciation for lighter, more-portable notebooks."
I-Cube also features accessories, PDAs, and Tablet PCs. Gadget lovers
who are disappointed that Sony stopped selling Clie handhelds in the
U.S. need only surf over to I-Cube, which buys the PDAs directly from
Japan and then converts most of the operating system into English. One
downside: About 40 percent of the OS is still in Japanese.
Used in Japan, New to You
Kurns & Patrick also specializes in ultralight technology from Japan.
One aspect of the site that sets it apart is its used section, which
gives cash-strapped tech lovers the chance to buy a "previously loved"
computer or gadget that is still in decent condition. Every used item
comes with a three-month warranty.
In general, however, the question of a warranty is a potential
deal-breaker for Kurns & Patrick and other imported-technology
sites. If someone buys an item from Best Buy, it can be taken to the
store for service or sent back to the manufacturer directly. But
computers purchased on a site such as Kurns & Patrick come with a
one-year Japanese domestic warranty, which means it must be returned
to Japan-or to Kurns & Patrick-for repair.
The good news, according to the company, is that some manufacturers,
like Panasonic and Sharp, honor their warranties globally. Others,
like Toshiba, do not.
Even if U.S. buyers take it on faith that the item works perfectly,
they should consider another potential drawback: Some of the machines
have Japanese keyboards, which are very close in layout to
English-language keyboards, but aren't a spot-on match. Kurns &
Patrick offers English stickers for the keyboards on some models.
In general, though, such quirks are unlikely to put off folks who
treasure a 2-pound notebook or a super-slim DVD drive.
Despite the possible sales to be gained from these niche customers,
large retailers in the U.S. get their marching orders not only from
consumers, but also from shareholders. That's where the economics of
mediocrity come into play.
High-end products command a high-end price. Most shoppers tend to make
middle-of-the-road selections at middle-of-the-road prices. Catering
to that mentality will produce the kind of returns stockholders
demand. It's an economic reality that further diminishes the chances
certain top-of-the-line tech goodies will reach U.S. shores anytime
The bottom line: If you want the newest, coolest show-stopping
gadgets, you can click your way to the handful of online stores that
will satisfy your lust for hard-to-get tech, right from the comfort of
But for the true beyond-borders electronics experience, you'll need to
pony up for a plane ticket to Tokyo. And if you bring your notebook
computer, just make sure you have a sturdy shoulder strap.
"People understand the need for mobility the second they have to carry
a heavy laptop through an airport," says Sucippo. "After that, they
come to us."
Copyright 2006 NewsFactor Network, Inc.
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