Surviving through BTRON Development

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

In a "CNET Japan Newsmakers" interview in April, Mr. Akira Matsui of Personal Media Corporation discussed the past, present, and future of the BTRON subproject and his company's role in it. Of all the comments he made, what stuck out most to the western reader was the following passage when asked to explain what he meant when he said that Personal Media could not but do BTRON development as a policy for corporate survival.

Looking back, various software houses were bought out by foreign capital, or even if things didn't go that far, for example, they couldn't make a living because Microsoft's cheap, good quality software appeared--we have seen that type of history. However, our company has been doing original things from way back, and so we were able to be in a position in which that type of competition was irrelevant. Of course, that's trying in its own way, but it was possible to hold our own in a competition different from price competition--to put it properly, technical competiton. This is also worthwhile for technicians. Actually, if we had done Windows application development, I think it's doubtful whether we would even exist today.

Bravo, Mr. Matsui! At last someone has had the courage to say the obvious in Japanese to the Japanese. When you do your own thing, when you "think different"--as Apple Computer Inc. likes to ungrammatically put it--you not only increase your own chances for survival, but you can also blaze new trails technologically. And this is good for the technicians, too. Their morale is higher, since they are creating their own future with their own technologies.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking was anathema to many "technology experts" and commentators in Japan in the late 1980s. When the BTRON-specification operating system was first proposed, some of these experts and commentators believed Japanese didn't have the technical capability to compete in the field of systems development. Others were against it, since they thought it would "isolate" Japan from the rest of the world. But in the late 1990s people overseas didn't think that way. Palm Inc. successfully commercialized a palmtop computer operating system that was incompatible with everything else, and Microsoft is playing second fiddle to their technology to this day. And then there was GNU/Linux, an anti-Microsoft, freeware operating system that has even made it into schools in poorer countries. And national governments from China to Europe are going to adopt GNU/Linux for official use, since its source code can be checked and confirmed free of "black boxes."

Why weren't foreigners worried about being isolated when they adopted these non-industry-standard operating systems?

TRON Project Leader Prof. Ken Sakamura touched on this point in a recent presentation he gave during a special program to introduce BTRON and its operations to novice users. It was just after the U.S. government announced that it would be withdrawing from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol aimed at limiting carbon dioxide emissions--a decision that in effect "isolated" the U.S. from the rest of the world. He noted that the U.S. has no fear of not going along with the rest of the world when it is not in its interests. Recently, in spite of the vehement protestations of most countries throughout the world, the U.S. government announced that it was going to develop a national anti-ballistic missile defense system, since it believes that also is in its national interests. And it's not just on important matters like these that the U.S. isolates itself. It also does not use the metric system, which the rest of the world uses, and it feels no particular need to apologize to anyone about that fact.

If Japan's leaders were as courageous as U.S. leaders, they might come to the conclusion that it is in Japan's interests to nurture a very powerful software industry--not so much as a means of conquering the rest of the world, but as a means of national economic survival. Due to the appreciation of the yen, manufacturing is going to hollow in Japan, just as it has in the U.S. As high paying manufacturing jobs disappear, what will they be replaced with? Low paying service sector jobs in burger shops? The only way to revive Japan's economy is through the development of innovative software that can lead to productivity increases and new applications of computer technology. Fortunately, Japan has a splendid platform on which to build software, a platform that was designed especially with Japanese culture in mind. It's called the BTRON-specification operating system, and as Mr. Matsui testified above, it will allow Japan to engage in a new type of competition where survival is more likely.

Are Japan's leaders listening?