Victor Co. of Japan Ltd. (JVC) will take its first steps into the U.S. personal computer market next month when it launches an ultra-portable PC aimed at corporate users on the move. The launch comes at a time when many PC makers are moving in the opposite direction and devising strategies to take on companies like JVC in the audio-visual sector.
The MP-XV841 is based on an Intel Corp. Centrino package that includes a Pentium M ULV (ultra low voltage) processor running at 1GHz. The computer also features an 8.9-inch liquid crystal display (LCD), 256M bytes of memory and a 40G byte hard disk drive. Its secret weapon is an optical drive that supports DVD reading and CD writing, which is unusual in a machine of its size: It weighs 3 pounds and 4 ounces (1.5 kilograms). The system is scheduled to go on sale in June, priced at US$2,400.
Those specifications, coupled with its size and weight, mean the machine won't be competing in the same arena as bulkier laptops from companies such as Dell Inc. or IBM Corp., but will go up against similar sized machines from mainly Japanese manufacturers.
"We are not trying to be number one in market share, that's for sure," said Al Levene, vice president of recording media and new products at JVC Co. of America. "We're going after a very small segment of the market: the mobile professional who has fairly light computing needs. They are not a gamer but need to do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, read e-mail and also be able to watch a DVD on the airplane." JVC has not finalized distribution plans for the product.
That target user represents only a small part of the total U.S. notebook market, said Sam Bhavnani, senior analyst for mobile computing at Current Analysis Inc. Almost 90 percent of buyers choose notebooks with displays 15 inches or larger, according to Current Analysis.
"That segment is a very small niche in the U.S. today, especially in retail. It accounts for 5 percent of total sales," Bhavnani said. JVC may face a problem with brand perception, he added. "Their brand name is more consumer electronics and stereos, and I don't know how well (potential buyers) will react."
Douglas Krone, CEO of Dynamism Inc., agreed. His company is a Web-based retailer that specializes in importing electronics products from Japan and selling them in the U.S. He has been selling JVC's Japanese domestic notebook models to U.S. customers for some time.
"I think it will be challenging," he said. "From a consumer standpoint, Sony (Corp.) has such an entrenched brand-name compared to what JVC will have selling in the U.S. It's kind of a niche product and will be competing with products from Fujitsu (Ltd.) and Sony's (Vaio) TR."
In facing competition from the companies mentioned by Bhavnani and others, JVC will be battling many of the same companies it fights in the Japanese market. Back home it stays competitive by satisfying the small but existing demand for PCs with sub-10-inch displays, but it also faces some of the same problems with name recognition, said Kumi Shingyouchi, a senior market analyst covering the PC market at IDC Japan.
"JVC is the only vendor that carries an 8.9-inch display currently," she said. "Since the mini-notebook market is relatively small compared to the overall portable market, many major vendors have exited the market -- IBM (Corp.) has abolished the Thinkpad S30 and Toshiba (Corp.) has currently stopped the Libretto. Therefore JVC's competitiveness is its uniqueness of product."
The company's main weakness is that it can't compete with the larger development and advertising budgets of bigger competitors, she said. "Many people do not even know (JVC) has PC products," Shingyouchi said.
Aside from the brand name issues, Current Analysis' Bhavnani gives the machine points for a couple of features, but takes points away because it lacks a dock -- JVC is offering a port replicator.
"One thing it does have is an integrated optical drive, which a lot of notebooks don't have, and the battery life is outstanding," he said, referring to the JVC-quoted extended battery life of 6.7 hours. "If you're going to sell to (the business) market -- a $2,400 notebook is not cheap -- it has to be to an executive and it has to become their primary system. What are they doing about docking?," he said.
On a more skeptical note, Bhavnani also questioned whether JVC will follow through with its launch plans.
"It'll be interesting to see if they launch it. I know they said they will launch it in June. Last year they announced a Pocket PC device and they cancelled it," he said.
A JVC spokesman said that although the PDA plans are still under discussion, the notebook launch plans are firm.
"We're still studying the PDA marketplace and evaluating product options before making a decision on how to proceed," said Terry Shea, a spokesman for JVC. "The difference between our Pocket PC plans and our plans to enter the notebook PC category in the U.S. is that we've been successful with notebook PCs for several years now in other markets. So it's not a new category for us, as a PDA would be."