Let's take a trip back in time. It's October 12, 1988. At the M. Davis Symphony Hall in San Francisco, NeXT Computer Inc. founder and CEO Steve Jobs is unveiling a new workstation called NeXTcube for educational use that receives rave reviews from critics. It's hailed as a masterpiece combination of state-of-the art hardware and software technologies. Moreover, its object-oriented programming environment, which allows programmers to quickly build reusable "software components," is considered a programmer's dream.
Only three years earlier Jobs had been forced from Apple Computer Inc., the company he co-founded, in a battle for supremacy with CEO John Sculley, the man he hand-picked to teach him how to run the company. Jobs is most famous for being the project leader of the design team for the Macintosh personal computer, the computer that set the paradigm for personal computing as we know it today.
Uncannily, in just one year, the new NEXTSTEP software platform he is unveiling today will be used by a young British scientist named Tim Berners-Lee at the CERN physics research center in Switzerland to develop the foundations of the hypermedia function that will eventually become the World Wide Web of today. Even more uncannily, in just nine years, NeXT Computer and its advanced software technology will be purchased by Apple Computer to serve as the core of the company's new flagship operating system to replace Macintosh, which will be dubbed "Rhapsody."
Now, let's take another trip back in time. It's December 8, 1988. At the Tokyo Prince Hotel at the foot of Tokyo Tower, the Fifth TRON Project Symposium (International) is being held. In a small room set aside for exhibits above the conference hall, engineers from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. are demonstrating a prototype of a personal computer for educational use. In spite of the fact that this educational computer is based on an Intel Corp. 80286 microprocessor running at 8-megahertz and has only 2-megabytes of main memory, it's displaying moving video images on its screen in color!
The prototype educational computer on display at this symposium is based on an advanced personal computing architecture developed under the leadership of Dr. Ken Sakamura of the University of Tokyo. Called Business TRON (BTRON), it is just "one subarchitecture" of the larger TRON "total computer architecture" that Prof. Sakamura is designing to serve as the basis for computerizing human society in the 21st century. This architecture is based on a new personal computing paradigm in which the end user will "communicate" with himself/herself, others, or "intelligent objects" that fill human living spaces and work environments.
Uncannily, this BTRON-specification computer architecture incorporates a new unified model for user operation, data management, and program execution called the "real object/virtual object model," which mirrors the hypermedia functions of the World Wide Web that has not yet come into existence. Even more uncannily, in the same month that Apple Computer will buy NeXT nine years later (February 1997), Seiko Instruments Inc. will begin shipping in Japan a BTRON-specification personal digital assistant (PDA) that is the first purpose-built BTRON-specification hardware product for general use (Fig. 1). Considering that handheld computing devices sell very well in Japan, it promises to become the first step toward popularizing the BTRON architecture in the same way the Apple's adoption of NEXTSTEP will bring the outstanding features of that operating system to the general public.
There are even more parallels between these two operating systems, which can be listed as follows:
Exactly why did so many parallels take place at roughly the same time in the respective histories of NEXTSTEP and the BTRON-specification operating system? Is there a God of Computing on a silicon Mt. Olympus silently guiding success and failure in the human world of computers?
Nope. These are all just coincidences. Moreover, the biggest coincidence, i.e., that both NEXTSTEP and the BTRON-specification operating system are just now being "resurrected" for use in next generation computer systems is really not surprising at all. Both systems when they first appeared were, and in very many respects still are, a generation ahead of the operating systems that have become the "industry standards" in the world of personal computing. And just as the market was not ready for all the advanced features of the NEXTSTEP in the U.S. nine years ago, the market in Japan was not ready for the outstanding technologies that are incorporated in the BTRON-specification operating system.
However, now that the industry standard personal computer operating systems are trying to realize the functionality embodied in NEXTSTEP and the BTRON-specification operating system, they are encountering a myriad of problems that are leading to poor performance and instability. And so computer developers are looking elsewhere for answers. And where are they finding them? As usual, in advanced technologies that have been "sitting around" for a very long time waiting for them.
Although there are many similarities between an advanced operating system such as NEXTSTEP and the BTRON-specification operating system (e.g., both have had a graphical user interface [GUI] and "preemptive multitasking" from the start), the Business-TRON specification is based on a different set of design premises, the most important of which is that it has to be an uncompromised human-machine interface (HMI) for real-time networks based on the TRON total architecture.
The key design premises for computers based the BTRON architecture can be summarized as follows:
BTRON machines have to be capable of responding to inputs, either from people or other computerized devices in a network, as rapidly as possible.
In order to stay connected to the network while performing useful tasks for humans, the BTRON machine must be capable of processing multiple tasks simultaneously. Moreover, no one task must be allowed to seize control of the processor, rather each task must allotted a certain amount of time for processing on a priority basis.
The TRON Architecture is literally being designed to "computerize cities." Accordingly, the key interface to the "computer city," i.e., the BTRON machine, must possess a simple, standardized HMI based on an intuitive GUI. (Note: TRON HMI guidelines actually go beyond the BTRON machine HMI, but that is another facet of the overall TRON Architecture to be discussed elsewhere.)
Since cities are populated by not only the able-bodied, but also by the handicapped and the elderly (whose needs are similar to the handicapped), the BTRON machine must have provisions built into it to enable such users to utilize BTRON machines. (Note: these provisions are called "EnableWare" in the BTRON architecture.)
Because native speakers of different languages and/or bilingual people can inhabit the same city, the BTRON machine must be capable of handling the character sets of all the languages of the world. Moreover, character handling on the BTRON machine must faithfully reflect character usage as it manifests itself in the culture of a particular people, no matter how large or cumbersome that character set might be. (Note: for this reason, Unicode is rejected for use in the TRON Architecture.)
In order to give users an easy-to-understand, consistent, and highly flexible way of managing data and executing programs, BTRON machines employ, for the first time in the history of personal computing, a hypermedia data management/program execution model at the operating system level. This is referred to as the "real-object/virtual-object model." (Note: similar functionality is realized at the "application level" with Apple Computer Inc.'s HyperCard programming environment.)
No single company, either a software or hardware company, can be allowed to have a monopoly, de facto or otherwise, over the architecture that is to be used to computerize cities. Accordingly, all interfaces in the BTRON architecture must be made available free of charge to any company that wishes to create compatible products. (Note: this does not mean that proprietary technology cannot be incorporated into a BTRON machine, only that other companies must have the ability to interface with it via open interfaces.)
Data formats for all types of data, i.e., text, two-dimensional graphics, voice, still images, etc., must be standardized and made publicly available so that no conversion is necessary between any two computers on the network. Moreover, the formats must be such that they allow for real-time interchange of data. In the TRON Architecture, this standardization falls under what is called TAD, or TRON Application Databus.
Because all sections of a city cannot be computerized and then upgraded simultaneously, the BTRON architecture must have provisions that allow for one system to interrogate another system in the network, and if the required interface is not there, remotely upgrade the interface so that the two systems can communicate with each other.
Shortly after the TRON Project was officially launched in 1984, work began on the development of BTRON architecture. An experimental machine based on BTRON concepts was unveiled in a publication released by the Sakamura Laboratory of the University of Tokyo in 1985 (Fig. 2). Then in August 1986, the BTRON Technical Committee was officially established within the TRON Association, which itself had been established only two months earlier in June 1986. The purpose of the BTRON Technical Committee was to outline the BTRON architecture and operation methods, and draw up BTRON specifications according to which hardware and software could be developed.
Development and implementation of the BTRON architecture was originally aimed at two types of hardware platforms: (1) systems with limited hardware resources, i.e., personal computers, based on the existing microprocessors of the time, in particular Intel Corp.'s iAPX286; and (2) systems with considerable hardware resources, i.e., newly designed workstations, based on the TRON VLSI CPU. These two implementations were loosely referred to as "micro-BTRON" and "pure BTRON." Later the former would officially come to to be know as the BTRON1 specification, and the latter the BTRON2 and BTRON3 specifications (these specifications have different numbers because their kernels are different). In addition, a subset of the BTRON3 specification, which is called "micro-BTRON," was recently defined for use in PDAs.
Because the BTRON architecture has been drawn up without regard to compatibility to past technology, it calls for the employment of a new ergonomically designed split keyboard and an electronic pen as the pointing device. Moreover, even the key layouts for the Japanese kana and letters of the alphabet are different from what is used today in Japan. The kana layout is based on an investigation of character frequencies carried out at the Sakamura Laboratory, and the layout for the letters of the alphabet is based on the highly efficient but not very widely used Dvorak layout that was developed in the U.S. by August Dvorak of the University of Washington in the 1930s.
Specifying a completely new type of keyboard for data input may seem strange; and, in fact, it appeared highly strange even to certain Japanese engineers working on BTRON development who couldn't conceive of their companies marketing a personal computer with a nonstandard keyboard. But eventually both Apple Computer Inc. and Microsoft Corp. would come to market new ergonomic keyboards based on a split layout, thus proving that BTRON-specification interface technologies were both leading-edge and world-class.
The first personal computer based on the BTRON1 specification was, as mentioned above, a personal computer for educational use that was developed by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. The first version of this educational computer was displayed to the public in February 1987. In addition to Matsushita, which developed the operating system and basic hardware, other Japanese companies took part in the development of peripheral BTRON technologies. These were: Wacom Co., which developed a battery-less, cordless electronic pen and digitizing pad; Yamaha Corp., which developed a high-speed micro-BTRON bus for connecting peripheral equipment to BTRON machines; and Oki Electric Industry Co., which developed a TRON keyboard.
Matsushita began marketing to Japanese educational organizations a dual operating system (MS-DOS plus BTRON-based ET Master) educational computer called PanaCAL ET in September 1990. The PanaCAL ET is a multimedia machine based on the Center for Educational Computing (CEC) educational computer specification, a specification that became a political football between the U.S. and Japanese governments. (The Office of the United States Trade Representative actually claimed that this dual OS machine incorporating an Intel Crop. microprocessor was a trade barrier!) In spite of all the political brouhaha, much special educational software was eventually developed for this machine, which made its way into classrooms in several areas across Japan. Moreover, Matsushita is still working away at the BTRON1 architecture. In fact, it recently announced an AV Environment Control System for BTRON1-specification computers.
In order to put BTRON technology into the hands of ordinary users, in particular a considerable number of BTRON fans, Personal Media Corporation, a Tokyo-based software firm, also marketed to the general public a dual operating system (MS-DOS plus BTRON-specification 1B OS) notebook computer called "1B/note" in September 1991. The hardware of 1B/note was based on Panacom M series developed by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. also developed and marketed a dedicated word processor based on the BTRON-specification called Panaword 6000i.
Unrelated to Matsushita's efforts in the educational field but shortly afterward in 1990, Japan Air Lines announced an airline reservation terminal for in-house use based on the BTRON1 specification. This implementation of the BTRON architecture is interesting in that the BTRON-specification terminal had to connect to JAL's IBM3090 series Sierra series mainframe computers,which are the hosts for JAL's on-line reservation system.
In addition to Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Personal Media Corporation has been very active in the development and marketing of BTRON-specification software and hardware. This small software firm, for which developing BTRON-specification products is just one line of work, has successfully developed and marketed in Japan three versions of a BTRON1-specification OS for IBM-compatibles (called "DOS V" machines in Japan): 1B/V1 (second quarter of 1994), 1B/V2 (third quarter of 1995), and 1B/V3 (third quarter 1996). In addition, the company has also developed and marketed a BTRON2-specification OS called 2B (first displayed in the fourth quarter of 1990) a BTRON3-specification OS (first quarter of 1995) for the M Cube hardware series, plus the micro-BTRON-specification PDA OS called B-right for the BrainPad TiPO (announced in October 1996).
BTRON-specification OSs have word processing, graphics, and communications software, in addition to a wide range of utilities, built into them. For the 1B series, Personal Media also markets other applications. These are: (1) a hypertext-based spreadsheet program called 1B Spread Sheet, (2) a hypertext-based card database program called 1B MicroCard, (3) an easy-to-use visual programming language called MicroScript, and (4) a multitasking MIDI player called 1B MIDI Software Player. In addition, the latest version of 1B, 1B/V3, supports the Chinese and Korean character sets, plus JIS auxiliary kanji, which makes it the personal computer with the largest character set on the market in Japan.
The latest BTRON-specification product to hit the market is the remarkable BrainPad TiPO, which uses which uses the micro-BTRON specification operating system "B-right." This tiny personal computing device, which fits into the palm of your hand, has almost the full functionality of the other implementations of the BTRON architecture. It is expected that this device will form the basis for future hand-held computing devices that incorporate mobile telecommunications circuitry.
After reading about the above developments in the history of the BTRON architecture, it should be obvious that a lot of hard work has been done to achieve the level of success that has been attained at this point in time. However, this still begs that question of "whether BTRON-specification operating systems really have much of a future." In other words, isn't it obvious that this technology, innovative as it might be, will not survive in the competitive jungle of software marketing against large developers of operating systems such as Microsoft Corp.?
Well, the fact of the matter is that people--yes, even including the people who run MIS departments in business organizations--want alternatives, alternatives, and still more alternatives when it comes to systems software and business productivity software applications. In other words, just as people don't want to live in a world in which there is only one brand of potato chips (let's call them "MicroCrisps" for lack of a better name), they do not want to live in a world in which one company controls their personal computing destiny. And thus alternatives there are. In addition to BTRON, which is slowly building up groups of loyal users in Japan, an impressive list of alternative operating systems has been developed overseas. These are:
Everyone has heard of the biblical "David and Goliath." Well, the world of server-class operating systems, thanks to the Internet, has "Linus and Billiath." Linus is Linus Torvalds, a talented young programmer in Finland, who singlehandedly developed a high-performance microkernel and made it freely available to others via the Internet, where it has become a full-blown Unix-clone freeware movement that now spans the globe. Not only is the operating system with X Windows available free of charge for multiple hardware platforms (Intel-based PCs, Macintosh PowerPCs, etc.), but there are hundreds of freeware software applications available for it also. If systems administrators in large organizations take a liking to Linux, it could spell serious trouble for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT server software.
After Jean Louis Gassee got the boot from Apple Computer CEO John Sculley, he didn't go away and sulk. He went off and started a new software company to develop a multitasking operating system for audio/visual and multimedia use. Although the Be OS is intended for multiprocessor hardware with two or more PowerPC processors, the same microprocessors that power the latest Apple Macintosh computers, it also runs on single processor platforms, including Macintosh. There have been several developer releases of this impressive operating system to date, and many freelance software developers, in addition to some large software houses, are said to be developing application software to take advantage of its features, which are so remarkable that Apple Computer was considering using it as the basis for its new flagship operating system.
Lots of people may be wondering what will happen to Macintosh users if Apple Computer goes bust due to its current financial troubles. Well, considering what happened to Amiga users when Amiga developer Commodore Business Machines Inc. went bust, the answer is not very much. A German company bought the rights to the Amiga operating system technology, which is famous as being a platform for audio/visual special effects software, and the architecture continues to be developed as an alternative to this day. The amazing thing about this is that there are said to be only about 3 million Amiga loyalists worldwide, compared to about 30 million hardcore Macintosh users around the globe, thus showing that even a small group of users can keep an alternative operating system going after its company of origin perishes.
IBM pumped a lot of money into trying to make OS/2 an operating system alternative for the masses, but it wasn't too successful, which goes to show that money alone can't buy success in the software marketing. However, the functionality embodied in this operating system, along with IBM's commitment to support it, impressed enough institutional users, such as banks and government organizations, to make it a viable alternative for their MIS department people. In the world of alternative systems software, success, it seems, comes in many forms.
The most famous and most successful alternative operating system for personal computing is, of course, Apple Computer's Macintosh. Although many observers have predicted this operating system doesn't have long to go before it becomes history, it is in fact in the process of being rejuvenated through the infusion of new technologies from the NEXTSTEP operating system (the merger of the two is called "Rhapsody"). Interestingly, the market in which Macintosh has been most successful has been Japan's, where it has a greater percentage of market share than in its home market. Even more remarkable is the fact that this market share was won without any intervention by U.S. trade negotiators, and in spite of the fact that it took a long time to develop Japanese-language functions for the operating system, thus proving that people will wait for an alternative if it's worth waiting for.
And so where does this leave BTRON-specification operating systems? With all these other alternatives out there won't it be hard for BTRON to survive, never mind thrive?
Not at all. BTRON-specification operating systems have several impressive features that appeal to users seeking alternatives to the current industry standard operating systems. These are:
As was stated above, the BTRON architecture was developed from the start with an eye on high-speed processing in real-time networks. BTRON-specification operating systems are thus highly appealing to organizations that want to do real-time factory automation and/or financial transaction processing. Moreover, the fact that BTRON-specification systems aren't slowed down by legacy code, plus the fact that they can be linked together with compatible ITRON- and CTRON-specification systems, puts BTRON-specification operating systems in a class by themselves as alternative operating systems.
No other operating system architecture in the world can cover the myriad of uses that BTRON-specification operating systems can--which range from a highly functional device that fits into the palm of your hand to a full featured workstation--while maintaining high performance. Moreover, BTRON-specification operating systems don't require much RAM, which enables them to give acceptable performance on hardware that is a generation or more older than that currently on the market.
It may not be fully developed at this point, but the best multilingual processing environment that has ever been designed for a computing system is the one that has been planned for the BTRON architecture. Although multilingual processing may not be a big deal in the North American market, it is a very big deal in other markets, particularly in countries where multiple languages written with multiple scripts are used.
From its inception, the BTRON architecture has included as standard functions provisions to support the disabled, which are also highly useful to the elderly. In a rapidly aging society such as Japan's, these functions are immensely important. As a result of the incorporation of these EnableWare functions, not surprisingly, many disabled were among the first BTRON users in Japan.
The BTRON-specification has two features that appeal to the techies: it implements new features that have never been tried before in an operating system, such as the real object/virtual object model, and it is an open architecture. Considering that certain "industry standard operating systems" have hidden "black boxes" in them that only the developing company's applications programmers can take advantage of, being totally open and free for the cloning are two very appealing aspects of the BTRON architecture.
One of the biggest problems with today's computers is that there are so many incompatible data types. On the Internet, there are different types of sound and motion picture files that some people can download and use, while others can't. In the world of TRON, this problem will never occur thanks to comprehensive data type standardization via TAD.
All right, all right, this all sounds very nice, but the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Is this stuff selling? How many users are there?
Absolutely. To date approximately 60,000 copies of the BTRON1 specification have been sold by Personal Media Corp. And each new release seems to create more interest in the architecture. In fact, things are going so well, that Personal Media is actually hiring new technical personnel!
In addition, there is a BTRON Club, which has its own newsletter and holds regular functions so that BTRON users can get together and meet each other. There are also regularly scheduled meetings of disabled BTRON users, and there is a BTRON SIG at the NIFTY SERVE on-line service in Japan, where there are large numbers of freeware and shareware that can be downloaded. (Thanks to TAD data standardization, by the way, BTRON users can swap text and/or graphics when chatting via NIFTY SERVE.)
Research papers and technical specifications and manuals concerning the BTRON architecture are available from the following sources:
The proceedings of the TRON symposia have been published annually in English since 1987. Between 1987 and 1990, they were published by Springer-Verlag, and since 1991 they have been published by IEEE Computer Society Press.
Technical specifications for the various BTRON-based operating systems and other BTRON-specification technologies, such as the TRON keyboard, etc., are available from the TRON Association. The address is as follows: