During a business trip to Japan in 2004, technology analyst Michael Gartenberg caught a glimpse of Sony Corp.'s Librie, the first e-book reader with an electronic ink display.
Mr. Gartenberg was impressed. He saw it as a harbinger of a new wave of products that would hit the U.S. But there were problems. The software was in Japanese. It required a computer to download a book and selection was limited.
From Sony's Walkman cassette player, which changed the way people listened to music, to Apple's iPad, which forged a new category of computing, see some of the biggest trendsetting electronic devices.
Today, Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle dominates the e-reader business and the Librie is little remembered. Sony is playing catch-up with a successor device, which ranks a distant third in the global market.
It is a story that has played out repeatedly over the past 20 years for Japan's once-world-dominant electronics firms. Japanese companies have beaten rivals to the market with hardware breakthroughs—from flat-panel televisions to advanced mobile phones.
But in each case, foreign rivals have cashed in by delivering faster improvements, integrating the products with easy-to-use software and online services, and delivering a smarter marketing message.
That has left one of Japan's prized electronics manufacturers, Sharp Corp., teetering, as it grapples with an acute cash crunch and plunging stock price. Sony is in the midst of another restructuring after four years in red ink. And Panasonic Corp. is pulling back from consumer electronics.