Rancho Bernardo, California It's a long way from the clutter of electronic gizmos in the streets of Tokyo's Akihabara district to the palm-covered hills north of San Diego. Or is it? Akihabara, as most well-traveled geeks know, is the world's showcase for the newest, coolest — and sometimes weirdest — technotoys from Japan. Frequently, Tokyo's innovations translate flawlessly into the U.S. market. But sometimes, they do not. It's the job of Mark Hanson and his marketing team here at the American outpost of Sony's Video Audio Integrated Operations (VAIO) division to figure out which Sony products fit into which category.
Hanson, looking every bit the company vice president in his pin-striped suit, rushes down a long hallway toting two slender Sony laptops that few Americans have seen. The first, called the GT, is a PC with a camcorder attached. The display snaps, swivels, and folds into a view screen for the camera, which can broadcast live video to the Web over Tokyo's wireless broadband networks. The second, dubbed the U, is the smallest laptop in the world: Less than 7 inches wide, with a 6-inch diagonal screen, it makes an ordinary laptop look sumo sized. Hanson sets them down next to a stylish all-in-one desktop unit, named W, in a meeting room bright with the southern California sun.
What determines a product's fate? "Environment is very key. A typical house in Japan is 1,000 to 1,100 square feet," Hanson says. "They just can't have as much stuff! The stuff they do have, they want to be unique, whereas in the United States, we want to have one of everything." Hanson's current challenge is the U. His team has shown it to focus groups here, Hanson says, and "the overwhelming response is, 'Wow.' Then, after the emotional attachment takes place, people start to think, How do I utilize this? How do I make it part of my life?" Trouble is, Hanson explains, the U may be the most "Japanese" product in the entire VAIO line.
Keiichiro Shimada, president and GM of Sony's VAIO notebook-computer company in Japan, proposed the idea that became the U when he noticed that rush-hour trains to Tokyo were simply too crowded to allow many commuters to use their laptops. "The only people in Tokyo who have the luxury of a lap are the first people on the train!" Hanson says. The point of the U, he explains, gripping its base with two hands and resting his thumbs on the keyboard, "is to give users the experience of what I'd call a standing computer."
How would that translate into the U.S. market? The cultural differences are daunting. Far more Americans touch-type than do Japanese (a few Japanese characters convey a lot), and touch typists are likely to resist typing with their thumbs. Japan's wireless networks allow the Japanese to do more with the U than surf a simplified Web and receive email. And few Americans face a Tokyo-type rush-hour commute.
Yet Hanson genuinely believes that Sony's littlest VAIO could make it here. He and his team are thinking about tweaks — a foldout keyboard, for instance — that might make it an easier cross-cultural sell. "I'm an evangelist for these types of products," he says. That means stumping for technology that customers don't say they want. After all, Hanson points out, the first Sony Walkman was both unprecedented and designed for the Japanese. "Akio Morita [then Sony chairman and CEO] could have done a bunch of focus groups on the Walkman," Hanson says, "but nobody knew that they wanted it."
A version of this article appeared in the January 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.