Form Over Functionality
For a new wave of Japanese electronics brands, what a gadget does is less important than how it looks in your living room.
By Mariko Mikami

(Business 2.0) – Humidifiers are not supposed to look like oversize LifeSavers, and portable music players should be distinguishable from cigarette lighters. Likewise, PCs are not typically sold in clothing shops. But that didn't stop Hiroko Tago, a 30-year-old graphic designer, from buying a $2,300 Dynabook Realfleet laptop at United Arrows, a hip Tokyo boutique. With a leather palmrest and a keyboard painted in a tasteful montage of chocolate, caramel, and off-white, it's about $1,000 more than similarly powered laptops sold elsewhere. "What's important to me when I buy electronics is that they fit my lifestyle," Tago says. "I never thought I'd find a Windows machine that I could truly love."

With the marketing successes of products like Apple's iPod, electronics makers the world over are figuring out that great design is becoming an important purchase motivator for consumers. But in Japan the trend is going even further, propelled by a flock of new brands that stress design excellence over technical sophistication and shun traditional retail channels in favor of stylish boutiques. Most are still small and unknown in the United States, but their growing popularity portends similar developments in the West. After all, now that virtually any company can outsource state-of-the-art manufacturing, gearmakers have to differentiate themselves on design. According to Takekazu Inoue, a brand strategy analyst at Japan Research Institute, "Soon most electronics will be designer electronics." — MARIKO MIKAMI