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 more-advanced services.
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 their purposes.
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 computer."
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 States.
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 Fuji.
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 I-Cube.
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 soon.
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 your home.
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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