Dell Computer Corp. of the United States appears likely to surpass Sony Corp. as the third-largest supplier of personal computers in Japan in fiscal 2003, becoming the first foreign firm to make the top three since fiscal 2000, according to a private market research institute.

In the April-September first half of this fiscal year, Dell shipped 540,000 PCs and captured 9.7 percent of the Japanese market, up 2 percentage points from a year earlier, MultiMedia Research Institute Inc. said Wednesday.

Dell, known for its low-priced PCs, narrowed Sony’s lead to only 0.2 percentage point.

NEC Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. were the two largest PC suppliers in Japan. NEC had a market share of 23.3 percent, while Fujitsu had 22 percent.

Back in 2000, IBM Japan Ltd. had the No. 3 share, making it the most recent foreign PC maker in the top three.

In fiscal 2002, Dell was the largest PC supplier in the world but ranked fourth in Japan with a market share of 8 percent.

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