Macworld Expo Preview

It comes just a month after Apple's big trade show in San Francisco. It takes place half a world away from the U.S., the Mac's major market. And by the time Steve Jobs wraps up his keynote address Thursday morning in Tokyo, most Americans will be getting ready for bed on Wednesday night.

So Macworld Expo Tokyo -- which begins later this week at the Nippon Convention Center -- isn't that big a deal, right?

Hardly.

The Tokyo Expo is usually the best-attended of all the Mac trade shows. Last year's show attracted 182,688 visitors -- more than Macworld Expos in either San Francisco or New York. And after the U.S., Apple sells more Macs in Japan than in any other country.

"The Japanese customer is very fanatic when it comes to the Mac," says Vicki Burkhard, vice president of international sales for graphics card maker Sonnet Technologies. "They're into their machines. They're fans, even more so in Japan (than in the U.S.)."

Those numbers are reflected in Apple's sales figures. Of the $7.98 billion in net sales that Apple reported in its 2000 fiscal year, $1.35 billion came from Japan alone. Japanese sales increased 57 percent -- the largest gain of any of Apple's market segments. Macintosh unit sales rose 39 percent in Japan; only Europe saw a bigger jump.

Apple declined to comment for this story. But in documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company credited increased sales of professionally oriented Mac systems and the introduction of new iBooks (17 percent of Japan's total unit sales in 2000) for its strong business in that country.

Apple formed its Japanese subsidiary in 1983. "Six to ten years ago, the Mac was really huge here," says Garr Reynolds, president of the 150-member Kinki Mac Users Group. "The reasons being that it did such a better job with Kanji (a Chinese character used in Japanese writing)."

Apple's market share slipped during the mid-nineties, as the Windows operating system made the same gains in Japan as it did in the U.S. But the popularity of the Mac rebounded in Japan in 1998, Reynolds says, with "the return of Steve Jobs and 'cool' . . . . The iMac was a smash success."

However, Apple's Japanese outlook isn't entirely rosy, as iMac sales have flattened recently. In the third quarter of 2000, Apple's market share in Japan dipped to 4.4 percent from 7.8 percent in the last quarter of 1999, says IDC analyst Roger Kay. The technology market research firm lists Apple as the eighth-largest PC retailer in Japan, compared to sixth-largest in the U.S.

Still, the Mac remains a popular computer in Japan. Reynolds says there are between 10 and 12 Mac-themed magazines in Japan, a substantial increase over the U.S. And as in the U.S., the Mac enjoys high popularity among creative professionals, artists, and educators.

"The stereotype is of the boring, PC-using, group-thinker salary man. And there are many who fit that stereotype," Reynolds says. "But there is also a large population of folks to whom 'think different' rings true. Japan is home to some of the most loyal Mac freaks -- 'freaks' is what we call them here -- anywhere."

Longtime Mac developers notice that passion, too. As a result, Macworld Expo Tokyo will not only feature Japanese companies but also a number of developers familiar to U.S. Mac users -- Adobe, Hewlett-Packard, Wacom, Sonnet, and FileMaker among others.

"Apple has had a strong presence in Japan for a number of years," says FileMaker President Dominic Goupil. "Therefore, vendors like ourselves have benefited."

Roughly a quarter of the database software maker's worldwide sales comes from Japan, Goupil says. Like FileMaker, half of Sonnet's business comes from outside the U.S., Burkhard says; Japan accounts for 45 percent of the graphics card maker's international business.

There aren't many major differences between U.S. and Japanese Mac products except for Japanese-language interfaces, manuals, and packaging. Sometimes, however, Goupil says overseas markets can provide inspirations for product innovations. A table view feature added to FileMaker Pro 5 was strongly requested by Japanese customers because of the way data is presented in that country. And customers in Japan and Europe pushed the company to develop FileMaker Mobile, a Palm OS version of its database product.

Apple takes its Japanese market as seriously as its developers do. Steve Jobs will give the keynote at Macworld Expo Tokyo just like he addresses the Mac faithful at the New York and San Francisco shows. And he usually has something important to say -- at last year's Tokyo Expo, Jobs unveiled changes to the iBook line, including the iBook SE; released a retooled PowerBook G3; and announced the availability of a 500MHz Power Mac G4.

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