JAPAN'S SHARP CATCHES RIDE ON NEW-MEDIA WAVE

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In breaking ground for its planned 54,000-square-foot, $8 million multimedia research and development laboratory at Camas, Wash., Japan's Sharp Electronics Corp. hopes to break into the booming U.S. new-media market.

The facility that is to open next summer (rented space is being used in the interim) will focus on Sharp's strength in electronic office products by developing innovations for digital business communications and imaging.

"The lab ties into our strength and we want to build on that," said Jon K. Clemens, a veteran of the Stanford Research Institute and president-CEO of Sharp Laboratories of America, the new research facility.

He said Sharp is America's leading producer of fax machines and is strong in other office product lines such as copiers.

The lab will be one of the country's few private research facilities fully dedicated to new media.

Sharp initially is hiring 30 top-level researchers and plans to add 70 more within three to five years. The operation eventually will provide development support for all electronic products.

Sharp, along with most Japanese electronics companies, failed to realize the importance of digital products in the American marketplace and U.S. companies have gained a distinct advantage.

"I would say all the Japanese companies have missed the multimedia market," said Mark Anderson, principal of Technology Alliance Partners, a Seattle-area high tech investment, consulting and publishing concern.

Sharp seems to have recognized its mistakes and looks to the lab as a way to make up ground in what could prove the most lucrative American industry for years to come.

The rapidly developing and sprawling multimedia industry will test the lab's ability to time development of products for the fast-changing market.

Research will include top-down development, which will look at the broad infrastructure needs of the industry and what products will be useful in developing it, and bottom-up research, which will build distinct products like personal digital assistants that can be incorporated with technologies such as cellular phones.

Unlike many U.S. high tech companies that are focusing research and development on narrow product lines, the Sharp lab will look at its entire range of products.

Mr. Clemens said Sharp selected the Camas site because its microelectronics plant, which specializes in integrated circuits, already operates there.

Mr. Clemens said he thinks Sharp will be able to integrate research findings at the lab into Sharp's products within 18 months.

Other departments at the lab include research focusing on digital video and wireless communication.

Tied into the new laboratory is a lobbying arm at Sharp headquarters in Mahwah, N.J., that will work to develop media industry standards with other companies.

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