January 8th, 2009
08:42 AM GMT
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TOKYO, Japan - "Mon dieu!" The French woman put down the package of six tomatoes, stared at her husband and shook her head. A few minutes later, another couple wheeled down the produce aisle, said some phrase in a language I didn't quite understand, and walked away from the cilantro. I was in my own sort of dilemma: what eloquent phrase to accurately express my sticker shock at the price of an avocado.

The faces are from around the world at my neighborhood grocery store - Korean, Chinese, European, Canadian and American. These expatriates are paid in their nation's home currency and shop here, at this grocery store. It's a rare jewel in Tokyo, where expatriates can have a slice of home when you're tired of eating sushi. And in this small store, you get a local taste of the global pain being felt by Japan's most powerful multi-national corporations: trying to compete in a world where the Japanese yen is stronger than virtually every other currency in the world.

You hear two primary reasons why Japan's exporters are getting hammered in the global economic slowdown: weakening demand by the world consumer and the strong yen. The yen is so strong that analysts say when it ticks up just one level, Toyota loses US$350 million. A year ago, the yen was trading at 120. After October, when the yen surged and every currency plummeted, to see the yen now hover at 85 is no longer a big surprise. But for the company trying to staunch the red ink amid a recession, the strong yen is landing a double-whammy body blow to corporate bottom lines. The currency problem is making it even tougher for them to look toward recovery and tougher to compete in the current global economy.

Back at my little grocery store, you also see far fewer Chinese faces. Last summer, Japan bet that the newly rich Chinese tourists would make up a majority of the tourists into Japan, even setting up a new tourist bureau. But the currency has changed that prognosis, as tourism plunged. The price of food, the price of a hotel stay, the price of virtually everything is higher if you're paid in a different currency, even if the yen price appears unchanged.

"It could all be worse," said an expat I recently met who hails from Peoria, Illinois, USA. "You could be going home like me." He works for a company based in Illinois, and has been told to pack his bags and head back to the Midwest. This move was something he hoped to avoid because despite its tremendous cost, Japan offers a fascinating overseas experience. But that cost is making it no longer attractive for his employer to keep him overseas. Companies based in Japan, such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan, don't have that option. They just hope the monetary policy will change in Japan and something will help bring the yen somewhat in balance with the other world currencies.

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Filed under: BusinessFinancial marketsJapan

January 8th, 2009
08:17 AM GMT
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NEW YORK - This week Apple Computer made it a lot easier to enjoy music purchased on iTunes. While we were all busy debating the health of Steve Jobs and his failure to make a cameo appearance at Macworld Tuesday, his substitute, Phil Schiller, announced that effective immediately 8 million songs will be available without digital rights management (DRM). Those are the restrictions that prevented song sharing or playing purchased songs on other devices. Two million more songs will be available by April.

Apple Vice President Philip Schiller delivers the MacWorld keynote address Tuesday in San Francisco
Apple Vice President Philip Schiller delivers the MacWorld keynote address Tuesday in San Francisco

Some Mac enthusiasts were underwhelmed by the news. After all there were always ways to get around the copyright restrictions. But for someone like me with little time and even less tech know-how, this definitely makes things easier.

Apple finally got the major record labels to agree to kill DRM in exchange for a tiered pricing system for iTunes. Songs will now be 69 cents, 99 cents or $1.29 (59p, 79p, or 99p if you are in the U.K.). Apple had long resisted moving away from its one-price-fits-all program, but given that they managed to get some older songs priced lower, it seems like a decent compromise - at least to me.

What I am NOT happy about is the fact that I have to pay to upgrade my existing library to DRM free format. Thirty cents a song. I have 286 songs in my purchased file, and that doesn't count the many others I bought on my old desktop that I still can't figure out how to transfer onto my new iPod. It will cost me $85 at least to upgrade the recent purchases. It is not a huge amount, but in these economic times, I would much rather spend it somewhere else.

How do you feel about the changes? Are you mad about paying the fee to upgrade your existing songs or happy to have the flexibility?

And what about the iPod itself? Ditching DRM also means that people can now play iTunes music on any kind of player. Is there a better vehicle, or is Apple still doing it right when it comes to the gadget that revolutionized music for the masses.

Let us know what you think.

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Filed under: Business

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