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Atsutoshi Nishida, President and CEO, Toshiba

Twenty-two years ago Atsutoshi Nishida made a simple observation about the then-popular “transportable” computers: They were too big.

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Armed with that emperor-has-no-clothes worldview, the young Toshiba executive embarked on a mission that in 1985 yielded the T1100, the first commercially viable laptop. When introduced in Europe in April 1985, the system measured about 12 by 12 inches, was 2.5 inches thick and weighed slightly more than 9 pounds, a groundbreaking achievement. More important, the machine added a new term to the industry&'s lexicon: mobile computing.

In 2005, sales of notebook PCs surpassed those of desktop systems for the first time. And the growth of wireless technology has given mobile computing even more momentum with both solution providers and, of course, their customers. It was Nishida&'s vision and determination some two decades earlier that set the industry on its mobile course.

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“I first met Mr. Nishida in 1992—even then his vision was that notebooks would surpass desktop sales,” said Mark Simons, vice president and general manager, Toshiba Digital Products Division, Irvine, Calif. “He&'s always believed that people want digital content or information with them at all times. He is long past the concept of a product; he really believes that this is the way your lifestyle is shaping for the future.”

Mobility wasn&'t always so widely accepted. The concept of a mobile laptop computer that was readily apparent to Nishida in 1983 met with skepticism and doubt both inside and outside Toshiba. The determined executive, who was named Toshiba&'s CEO earlier this year, waged a nearly two-year battle to see his vision of a battery-powered notebook computer reach the market.

In 1983, Nishida was leader of a three-man team sent to Los Angeles to study how Toshiba could re-enter the U.S. market after an earlier foray with a desktop PC failed in part because it lacked IBM compatibility. Now late to the party with a desktop, Nishida and his team quickly envisioned the potential of a laptop PC, which Nishida described as a clamshell-type transportable system with an LCD and IBM-compatibility features.

The team returned to Japan to pitch its plan to top management. But senior Toshiba executives didn&'t believe the company would succeed in selling a laptop computer under the Toshiba brand, and Nishida failed in his attempts to negotiate an OEM deal for the notebook computer with other companies. Nishida, whose personal mottos are “Set yourself tough challenges and achieve them” and “Commit to and make good your promises,” was undeterred. Toshiba management finally agreed to his laptop proposal, but only after Nishida made a personal promise to sell 10,000 machines in the first year.

Even with the green light, Nishida, who was senior executive for Toshiba Europe at the time, faced one other tricky problem: While Toshiba management approved the project, they committed virtually no funds to it, meaning he had to divert money from his own budget to get the project off the ground.

Money aside, one of Nishida&'s toughest challenges in bringing his mobile computer to market was convincing major software companies, notably Lotus, to put their software on 3.5-inch disks rather than the then-industry-standard 5.25-inch format. After being rebuffed three times, he finally convinced a European sales manager for Lotus to port the 1-2-3 spreadsheet to the smaller disk as a personal favor. With Lotus on board, he then went to database leader Ashton-Tate and talked it into doing the same with dBase III and dBase IV.

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“He&'s the most focused person I&'ve ever met,” Simons says, explaining Nishida&'s determination.

While a consummate marketer and leader by profession, Nishida&'s nature is that of a modern Renaissance man. He was pursuing a doctorate in the history of German political thought before joining Toshiba in 1975, and he began his professional career in Tehran, Iran. In his personal biography, Nishida, who is married and has a son and daughter, lists reading as his only hobby.

“He is the consummate reader,” Simons says. “He reads at any one time six to 10 books. He&'ll read fiction, a business book, science fiction; he&'ll pick one from every category and read a part, then go to the other book. I watch him go into a bookstore, and he&'ll pull them off the shelf left and right. Even though he loves golf with a passion, his real hobby is reading. He reads every moment he gets.”

He&'s also a good reader of human nature. With Ashton-Tate and Lotus on board, Nishida was ready to sell his new machine to Europe&'s largest companies. He recalled later that what caught the attention of company IT managers wasn&'t so much the portability of the new laptop, but its LAN connectivity. It was that feature that convinced IT department managers employees using the new systems could be productive both inside and outside the office.

With the IT departments on board, Nishida understood that the battle to gain a corporate toehold for the T1100 was only half won. His next task was to win over purchasing managers, and the channel. Nishida recalled that he spent many lunch and dinner appointments with procurement executives charming them with discussions of comparative culture. His goal was to build relationships with the executives who approved the purchase orders, and it worked. At the same time, the vendor became known as an early advocate of the reseller channel as a route to market in the United States. That effort continues today. Just last week, the Toshiba Digital Products Division said the latest addition to its Tecra L2 Series notebook family will be sold exclusively through the channel.

Back to 1985: Nishida sold his 10,000 machines the first year and told his bosses in Tokyo to double production the next year. Since the T1100 was launched, Toshiba has recorded worldwide cumulative sales of more than 37 million notebook computers through 2004, according to market researcher IDC.

And with Nishida now heading the company, colleagues will tell you that he looks at those mobile PC sales figures today and says: They are not big enough.

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