By Larry Armstrong
Call it gadget envy. You know that feeling you get when someone plops down next to you in an airport lounge and pulls out a notebook computer so slim, so light, so stylish that your company-issued black number suddenly feels like the original Kaypro. Or when the geek in the next office shows up with a cell phone or handheld organizer--you name it--that's to die for. You mutter a calm "That's cool" and skulk away for fear he'll see the raw, unbridled lust burning in your eyes.
My latest case of gadget envy came toward the end of a B movie, a Japanese sci-fi thriller I caught on cable last month. In it, the newest of the endless series of Godzilla movies, the hero emerges from an exploding high rise with all the government's evil secrets captured on the cutest little Sony notebook you've ever seen--with a built-in camera. "Aha--PictureBook," I thought. But somehow, it looked different.
MAGIC MAN. Just to make sure, I called Doug Krone, who runs a company called Dynamism Inc. (www.dynamism.com) in Chicago. He sent me an even cooler Sony notebook, one of the VAIO GT series, with a digital video camera--complete with a 10X zoom lens--mounted off to one side. And, hey, while I was at it, would I like to take a look at the Sharp Mebius PC-MT1 laptop, the world's thinnest and lightest standard-size notebook? You bet I would. It measures just 3/4 of an inch at its thickest point and weighs a couple of ounces under three pounds. That's the one that made my brand-new, aforementioned black IBM ThinkPad X20--"extra-light, extra-small ultraportable," in IBM's words--feel like a doorstop.
Dynamism specializes in selling soon-to-be or never-to-be exported Japanese computers to U.S. executives who want something a bit different. (Actually, really different--but in a tasteful, understated sort of way.) You know the type, the ones for whom the name "Akihabara" rolls off the tip of the tongue as if it were an exalted Japanese shrine instead of a hard-bargaining shopping district in the middle of Tokyo.
Krone is a disarmingly young 26-year-old who made his way through Northwestern University buying and selling computer chips of dubious provenance. Dynamism is an above-board outgrowth of that, part of the gray market in which nifty cameras, cars, and computers are sold outside manufacturers' normal distribution channels. There's nothing illegal about it, but makers try to discourage it. For one thing, the warranty is almost always invalid outside the country of purchase or if the product was acquired from someone other than an "authorized" retailer.
In this instance, Dynamism is simply exploiting the differences in consumer psychology in the U.S., which prizes good value, and Japan, where the top priority is to deliver the latest technology, materials, and design regardless of price. What makes Dynamism a viable enterprise is the language difference. Krone's employees strip off the Japanese software, replacing it with English-language versions, and translate the owner's manual. His price also includes toll-free tech support and a warranty-rescue service that returns the computer to Dynamism's Tokyo office for repair under the original warranty.
Expensive? Well, any addiction is. You can expect to pay a premium of about 30% to 50%, Krone says. By my math, it's more like 50% to 100%. Then again, I'm looking at only the most distinctive and hard-to-get products. In fairness, the markup also has to cover Japanese taxes, shipping, and a small U.S. duty.
It's worth it, says longtime customer Mitchell Kertzman, CEO of Liberate Technologies (LBRT) in San Carlos, Calif. He once picked up an early version of Sony's sleek 505 series notebook in Tokyo and had nothing but problems. "I discovered that it's far from trivial to install English-language Windows," he says. The biggest hitch: reconfiguring Windows to match the slightly different Japanese keyboard.
Krone is expanding his business into cell phones. It's about time we got an early crack at those sleek, sexy European world phones that seem to take forever to get to the U.S. The prices for those? Don't even ask. It's beside the point, I figure, when you're trying to satisfy a technofetish. Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.