Tech: Thinking Globally

Technology companies, with some exceptions, don't have a great track record of understanding what their customers want. They often just load up their latest gizmo with every new feature they can pack in and leave it up to consumers to figure out. That makes for mixed success in the U.S. With tech's next 1 billion customers likely to come from India, China, Brazil, and other fast-developing countries, that strategy won't work at all. The need to succeed in emerging markets requires U.S. and European companies to radically change how they design products and how they do business. It requires them to get to know their overseas customers at least as well as those at home, not only because they are different but because local companies who do know those cultures are competing fiercely for their business.

Take cell phones. American and European high-tech companies are mostly PC-centric, with customers connecting to the Web and doing most of their work on laptops or PCs. In Asia, however, cell phones with Net access are clearly the Web tool of the moment. Some 30 million PCs are expected to be sold in Asia this year -- compared with 200 million cell phones. Asian consumers are doing their banking, playing games, and listening to music on cell phones and will soon be watching videos and movies on them. That gives the advantage to Korea's Samsung Group and LG Group as well as a host of Chinese cell-phone makers. Motorola Inc. (MOT ) and Nokia Corp. (NOK ) are successfully fighting back, but the competition is fierce. It took small Dubai-based Ilkone Mobile Telecommunication to devise a mobile phone designed specifically for the world's 1.4 billion Muslims. It comes loaded with the Koran, alerts people at prayer times, and has a compass to point them toward Mecca. Brilliant.

Intel Corp. (INTC ) is one of the few companies really digging into cultures abroad. It has 10 ethnographers visiting the homes of people around the world seeing how they live and learning what they want and need. After research showed Chinese parents were worried about computers distracting their children from schoolwork, Intel designed special PCs that come with four education applications and a lock so Chinese mothers and fathers can help their children with schoolwork -- and stop them from listening to music on the Web and "wasting" time.

Smart U.S. and European high-tech companies would do well to not only innovate for their new markets but to bring these innovations home. Understanding your customers and designing products specifically for them is becoming the only way to compete and win anywhere in the world.

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