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Japanese may launch computer offensive in US by year's end

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 1984

The cover of Apple Computer's new 1983 annual report looks like a blackboard. It shows IBM and Apple with big chalk arrows pointing up, for continued strong growth. But off to the side, there's another arrow with a flag - a Japanese flag - and the year 1986 scrawled nearby.

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American computermakers are not naive. They don't expect Japan to leave the small-computer stone unturned in this country. But it's anybody's guess when and how the Japanese will enter the market in any serious way.

''The earliest major push will be around next Christmas,'' says Jeanne Dietsch, president of Talmis Inc., a computer-research firm. A few other analysts also think Christmas sounds reasonable.

But not Aaron Goldberg. ''The Japanese a force by next Christmas? That's laughable,'' harrumphs this regional manager for the Pacific branch of the research company International Data Corporation. ''They don't have the products. They don't have the distribution, and they don't have the software,'' he says.

For now, that's certainly true. With only 2 percent of the US microcomputer market, the Japanese can hardly claim success here. But now that IBM has set a standard in business computers, the Japanese companies have a defined market ''to attack,'' as one Sanyo executive put it. And, with Texas Instruments out of the home-computer market and others floundering, some analysts believe that market could support a strong new entrant.

The Japanese haven't made a big splash so far for several reasons: For one thing, the American computer industry has been a moving target, difficult to hit. Computer companies come and go; products change monthly. ''In other industries, the Japanese have sat back and waited to see what the American consumer wanted,'' says Dr. Harold Kinne at Future Computing, a computer research firm. That's just what they are doing now, he says.

At the same time, ''the Japanese have been very concerned with their own internal market,'' Dr. Kinne explains. ''There's an unbelievable market for Japanese word processors. They've been concentrating on that, and the US has been on the back burner. When they decide to give the US priority, they will be a major factor.''

It looks like the Japanese companies, in the US at least, are just now trying to put new vigor into their offensive strategies. These firms - including Epson America, NEC Home Electronics, Panasonic, and Sanyo Business Systems - are mostly going for the business user who needs a desktop, or a portable, computer. They say their competitive advantage will be price and quality, which both come from automated manufacturing.

''The Japanese have been very successful at automation,'' says Apple spokeswoman Barbara Krause. ''We plan on making our manufacturing operations as state-of-the-art as possible.'' The computermaker will shortly open an automated manufacturing facility in Freemont, Calif.

Now that IBM has set the standard in business computing, the Japanese have something to shoot for. Some of these companies will concentrate on IBM look-alikes that run IBM software. (''Hogwash,'' says Goldberg, about the importance of the IBM standard. He thinks IBM is likely to become more proprietary with its small computers, leaving its dependents in the dust.)