The Japanese are coming! The Japanese are coming! Fujitsu, Panasonic, Toshiba, NEC, and other Japanese companies are introducing a raft of new computer products into the US market because the PC is now so standardised they can use their traditional strengths in manufacturing and distribution to outgun the US companies. The real mark of this trend is that Sony - the company that owns the TV business, has innovated repeatedly in consumer electronics, and almost seems more American to Americans than real American companies - has finally gotten its nerve up to try the computer business for the third time in the United States.
Sony's US venture failed the first time for exactly the same reason a lot of US companies failed - it tried to deal with the PC market as a rational economic phenomenon. It designed a CP/M computer with spectacular graphics just when people were beginning to buy DOS computers with virtually no graphics. That was back in the Dark Ages of personal computing in the early 1980s.
The second time Sony failed, it failed for all the reasons that have caused it to go through a life change as a company. Sony managed to enjoy brief success in Japan as a workstation vendor before Sun began to make serious headway in that country. Sony then assumed that it could just take its workstation from Japan to the United States. US customers, who already viewed Sun as the reference point for workstations, couldn't figure out what advantage there was in buying an undifferentiated workstation from what they thought was a consumer electronics company. The company has since learned that it is not infallible and needs to pay more attention to customers.
They say the third time is magic. They might be right. Look at this problem from Sony's point of view:
The plain truth is that it is really hard to figure out what makes one computer company different from another and therefore more or less successful. We can probably say that Apple is a different company and makes different kinds of computers. But what really makes the difference between IBM, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard? They are all giant companies with enormous resources. They have all been in the business long enough to have made as many mistakes as any of the others and have all learned pretty much the same lessons about component purchasing, pricing, marketing, timing, distribution, and so forth. They all design and build a complete product line of computers, including desktops and notebooks. They all make sure they get the latest stuff from Intel and Microsoft as soon as they can. And the difference between the products they make is almost purely in timing: one company might guess and introduce a cool feature as much as three months before the others do.
It is natural in Sony's case to believe it has something to bring to the table in terms of audio and video. So the company has invented the term VAIO (Video Audio Integration Operation) and has built really good video and audio features into its computers. But you and I know that this is not sufficient to get consumers to buy a Sony computer, or anybody else's for that matter. And this is coming from a consumer who worships the ground Sony breaks: I have a Sony TV, a Sony Playstation video game, a Sony stereo system, and a Sony VCR.
What is worth noticing about Sony's current play in the computer business is that it knows consumers won't go for the AV alone. It's almost as if the company figured out that to get past its own engineers and management, it had to include cool AV features, but it had to find a way to throw them in for free so the customers wouldn't ding the company for making its machine unaffordable.
So what Sony has done, and Sony in this case is a new US subsidiary run by a mixture of Japanese and Americans who seem to believe that their careers are at stake in this venture, is to build really sexy power-user machines where the cool features come for free.
The PCV-70 will retail for approximately $US2,200 with a 166MHz processor, 16Mb of RAM, a 2.1Gb hard disk, a built-in 28.8Kbit/sec voice-data modem, an eight-speed CD-ROM, and the cool AV features, which centre around an enhanced method for decompressing MPEG-1 video and audio streams.
Now that's a proposition worth considering.