A Notebook That Puts Users Ahead Of Gimmicks

When NEC Corp. senior industrial designer Katsuhiko Kushi did field research for a new notebook computer in California, he noticed that people double-tasked, talking on the phone and writing as they geared up to use the machine. Conclusion? A laptop that requires two hands to open and close is ill-suited to the real working world. Kushi decided that NEC's new notebook would have a single center latch, easily opened with one hand.

The new latch is only the most obvious of the user-focused design details that have enabled NEC to resurrect itself from the laptop cellar. Beneath the pleasingly rounded exterior of the new NEC UltraLite Versa lurks a novel technical design that lets owners modify the machine as needed with a series of snap-in components. The result: Since its release in April, NEC has doubled its share of the booming notebook market. By July, the Versa had given NEC a 5% share of retail sales, up from just 2.5% in March, according to InfoCorp in Santa Clara, Calif., which tracks retail computer sales. NEC expects Versa to grab as much as a 10% share of the booming U.S. notebook market by yearend.

OUTSIDERS. Not bad for a company that holds over 50% of the computer market in Japan but has bombed out again and again in the U.S. The pattern is familiar: Like most Japanese electronics giants, NEC is run by engineers who dominate the product-development process. In technology-crazy Japan, stuffing computers with bells and whistles keeps sales humming. But in the U.S., where customers like convenience along with performance, that strategy has failed.

For instance, NEC engineers developed a touch-screen notebook because they felt NEC technology could make it feasible. They never considered whether anyone actually wanted to buy one. Few did, and the UltraLite SL20P notebook, released in October, 1991, went nowhere. A little homework would have prevented the gaffe. Years before, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s TouchScreen computers had fizzled. NEC's engineers also decided to omit a floppy disk to save size and weight in an earlier version of the UltraLite, and again U.S. customers jeered.

To recoup its failing fortunes in the $7.6 billion American market, NEC did something revolutionary for its corporate culture--it turned to an outside industrial-design consultant, IDEO. The Palo Alto (Calif.)-based firm has a reputation for engineering complex designs into products, not simply adding pretty stylistic facades. It was IDEO that refocused NEC on meeting customer needs.

NEC soon discovered what Apple Computer Inc. and IBM had learned already with their successful PowerBook and ThinkPad models: People are beginning to use a single computer for office, home, and travel. In the process, notebooks are being transformed from mundane office products to more personal electronic companions.

Kushi and IDEO took the lesson one step further and realized that even though individuals were using just one computer, their computing needs varied according to where they were operating them. People who spend a lot of time on the road, for example, need a way to get extra battery power.

So NEC designed the Versa as an extremely versatile notebook. The most striking feature of the design is its modularity. Every major component of the Versa, including display screen, disk drives, power supply, and memory, snaps in and out. That allows buyers to rapidly reconfigure the machine as needed for home, office, or travel use. The key was in designing the different latches and ports to make for easy attachment or removal of the components--no small feat. There is even a pen-PC version that has a detachable screen that can be flipped and used like a clipboard with an electronic pen.

This versatility became a big selling point. Former IBM notebook customer Joe Schodrowski, a district controller for Ryder Truck Rental Inc., bought the Versa because the screen can be detached and reversed. When he's making presentations, the screen allows a number of Ryder agents to see his graphs and charts at the same time. What's more, the clear design makes using the features easy. "It's pretty self-explanatory. Everything looks like what it's supposed to do," says the Augusta (Ga.) financial manager.

Versatility also sold the sales force at Buckbee Mears Cortland in Cortland, N.Y., which supplies screenmaking technology to television manufacturers. Because they spend a lot of time away from electric outlets, the salespeople want as much battery life as possible. "Our salesmen travel from here in upstate New York to Korea to Brazil. So the idea that we can take two batteries and change the configuration has turned out to be very valuable," says Buckbee Mears computer buyer Ray Pratt.

JAPANESE INTEREST. NEC hopes to use the Versa design strategy to build a whole series of what it calls "environmental" products that fit the way customers work--and that reflect their surroundings. Among other things, the Versa's curves and rounded edges are meant to blend in with such home-electronics gear as stereo equipment. "We intend to market these products based on their impact on the user's life," says NEC Technologies Inc. Senior Vice-President Jerry Benson, who oversees NEC's portable, monitor, and media products.

The success of the Versa in the U.S. has caught the attention of NEC management in Japan. That's a major coup. When Kushi first took his new design to Japan last year, it was rejected by the parent company for the home market. "The marketing people in Japan didn't want to change," says Kushi. Adds Bill Moggridge, a founding partner of IDEO: "There was a disconnect between corporate design and engineering divisions."

That's changing. Versa has been so successful in the U.S. and Europe that NEC's newest notebook for the Japanese market uses much of its design. Even rivals are catching on: IBM is incorporating modularity in its latest ThinkPad 750.

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