Innovations -- Groundbreaking Technology from Japan

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2002

During the 70s and 80s the label 'Made in Japan' became synonymous with 'well made, but dull.' The last 10 years have seen that turned on its head as companies in Japan have grown accustomed to pushing the barriers of both form and function.

by J Mark Lytle

AFTER 20 YEARS OF flogging cheap imitations of better Western goods and floating on the resultant high-growth bubble, the Japanese are now mired in recession (tell us something we don't know) and embarrassed by their rock bottom standing in the credit-rating league tables. It's not hard to find naysayers who'll explain why Japan deserves its fate and how it was inevitable. Just pop your head round the door of any ex-pat watering hole or members' club and you'll hear the same refrain: "What do you expect? The country's run by automatons and kowtowing lickspittles. They wouldn't know a good idea if it kicked them in the kintama."

Here at J@pan Inc we take a somewhat different view -- sure, the economy's stuck in reverse, but to blame the people who staff the mega-corps of Japan is as futile, not to mention plain wrong, as shaking your fist at the sun for rising. Besides, these days Nippon is fast becoming the place to be if your bent is at all creative.

Just to show exactly what we're on about, here are two genuinely innovative products from two very different companies. The first is the world's smallest Windows computer from that relentless innovator Sony, while the second is a surprising desktop PC borne out of one man's determination to nurture his pet product in the Japanese division of Dell.

Sony PCG-U1, JPY150,000,
Launched in April, Sony's new mini PC is being advertised as 'My Little Vaio,' evoking a slightly cheaper toy from a few years ago. While this midget gem doesn't have a pink nylon mane, it has a whole lot more to offer than just looking cute. For starters, on picking one up, you can't help but think that it really is Lilliputian, but it has to be said that a lot of that stems from squinting at the tiny 6.4in screen. Also, the unit isn't really that light -- it's 820g, which is only marginally lighter than several other sub-notebooks on the market -- but the ergonomics are what really make it stand out.

Physically, the U1 is an impressive piece of engineering -- at 184x139x31mm it packs a heck of a lot into a tiny frame. The motor force is an 867MHz Transmeta Crusoe CPU -- a new low-power chip ideal for sub-notebooks -- while 256MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive combine with Windows XP Home Edition. Expansion ports include single type II PC card and Memory Stick slots, two USB ports, a Firewire port and a 10/100 LAN port. The onboard speakers are pretty nice too. The most intriguing quirks Sony has added are the ThumbPhrase button and the bizarre mouse controller. These combine to allow speedy predictive text input while holding the Vaio in both hands -- it guesses what you're typing to save time. It's a great idea we expect to see copied by other PC manufacturers.

Dell Dimension 4500C, JPY99,800,
While not as 'in your face' as Sony's little attention seeker, Dell's newest addition to the Dimension range of consumer desktops is in many ways even more noteworthy. The genesis of project Phoenix (as it was originally known) is chronicled on the opposite page and the end result is impressive indeed, particularly as it is Dell's first real 'style' PC.

The basic configuration features a Pentium 4 1.7MHz processor, six USB 2.0 ports, 128MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive and Windows XP Home Edition in a unit that's sufficiently attractive to be plonked in your living room as part of a home entertainment combo. In fact, the product manager says: "I'm using it at home as my AV server with my 50in plasma TV. I have all my favorite CDs in a play list and use Windows Media Player with cool full screen graphics to give the sound visual effects. I also have all my favorite video clips shortcut to the desktop for playback through my software DVD player."

The real appeal of the 4500C, which is a Japan-only model, lies in a novel approach to the eternal problem of accessibility in desktop PCs. Instead of having all the important ports hidden away at the back of the case, Dell has developed something it calls the MultiAccess floppy replacement. This nifty little unit slots into a bay on the front of the case and offers two type II PC cards, a Firewire port and a modem socket. Dell has also provided a choice of flat-panel monitors from JPY54,000 for a 15in model, up to a 17-incher for JPY74,800. There's even a model with an integral TV tuner and remote handset. @

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