Staff writer

Clunky personal computers in dull shades of gray are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The nation’s personal computer makers, desperate to find a way to stimulate the sluggish PC market, are introducing a series of new machines this summer timed to coincide with the release of the Japanese version of Windows 98, Microsoft Corp.’s upgraded operating system, set to hit store shelves Saturday.

As software is expected to run faster under the new OS, the latest hardware industry buzz has turned toward “slim, light and space-saving.”

“Because the improved functions of Windows 98 can fulfill the needs of most consumers, I think attention will now shift toward design and portability,” said Sakae Takatsuka, senior manager of NEC Corp.’s Personal C&C Customer Communications Division.

Not only will Windows 98 make PCs run faster, it will also add improved integration with the Internet and wider home uses by providing Universal Serial Bus support for digital versatile disc players, printers, scanners, monitors and other devices.

The Vaio notebook series from Sony Corp. sports a variety of colors including lavender and a thickness of only 23.9 mm. It has been the most popular model at stores since its debut last year, said Takayuki Aoyagi, a manager at TZone in Akihabara.

“Its B5-size thin models priced at around 240,000 yen are the most popular among our customers,” Aoyagi said. “In addition to its modern design, I think the brand image of Sony has contributed as well.”

Having learned a lesson from Sony, other PC makers are following suit. This month, Toshiba Corp. introduced its new DynaBook series, including the SS300, which is said to be the lightest and slimmest B5-size notebook PC in the industry. It only weighs 1.9 kg and is 19.8 mm thick.

“Since we first introduced the subnotebook PC in 1994, we’ve worked hard to make a PC slimmer than 20 mm,” said Tetsuya Mizoguchi, director and general manager of the Personal Information Equipment Enterprise Department of Toshiba Corp.

NEC Corp.’s new PC98-NX series models, introduced last week, will be sold with Windows 98 preinstalled starting Saturday. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Sharp Corp. and other hardware makers have also introduced new portables.

Despite wide progress in the portable market, NEC’s Takatsuka already sees parallels between the computer and auto industries.

“As long as we all obtain the same central processing units from Intel Corp. and the operating system from Microsoft, the quality of computers will not be very different, regardless of their manufacturer,” Takatsuka said, citing that when cars first came out, people were most concerned about engine reliability because they didn’t want to break down in the middle of the road. When engine quality improved, attention turned to interior and exterior designs and comfort.

Meanwhile, Apple Computer Inc., which has suffered a sharp fall in market share in recent years due to the penetration of Microsoft’s operating systems throughout the PC industry, is ready to wage another battle against Windows 98-based hardware this summer.

“The success of Vaio is encouraging,” said Naohisa Fukuda, Business Operations director at Apple Japan, Inc. “It is due to its brand image and design, and we are strong in those elements. Consumers are now seeking originality in their computers.”

Besides, he said, Windows 98’s increased integration with the Internet and peripherals are features that Mac users already enjoy.

Next month, Apple will launch the flashy iMac, a speedy and futuristically stylish G3-based model aimed at ordinary consumers and professionals. The U.S. price will be $1,290, Fukuda said, and the company plans to offer it in Japan at a price that is comparable and much cheaper than other domestic PC models.

“Our G3 CPU, which is also used in the iMac, is faster than Intel’s fastest CPU Pentium 400,” he said.

The all-in-one iMac houses its CPU and monitor in a green, translucent plastic case, and Apple hopes the unique, eye-catching model will help raise unit sales to 700,000 from 650,000 last year.

However, Yoshi Takayama, executive vice president of NEC, which currently holds the top share in Japan’s computer market, admitted that what NEC fears most is not longtime foes such as Fujitsu Ltd. and Apple, but traditional electronics makers such as Sony and Matsushita, who have aggressively entered the computer market.

“They have more advanced technology in the area of integrated circuits and better marketing knowhow obtained through sales of home appliances, and they will also be good at producing computers that connect better with digital home appliances in the near future,” Takayama said.

“As computers become standardized with Windows 98, it will be easier for these electronics makers to challenge our market. It’s a good stimulus to the industry, but at the same time, it’s a threat to us.”

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