NTT DoCoMo's Success Is a TRON Success

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

The English-language media are filled with stories about the amazing success of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation's wireless spin-off, NTT DoCoMo Inc., which has introduced the world's most successful and advanced wireless Internet service available on the planet, "i-mode." Founded a mere eight years ago in 1992 as a cell-phone subsidiary, the company has been so successful that its market cap is now greater than that of its parent company, hitting $370 billion in the first half of 2000. That makes NTT DoCoMo the world's most valuable telecommunications corporation! NTT DoCoMo has also become Japan's largest Internet service provider (ISP), signing up 10 million subscribers in a year and a half--that's roughly half the number of subscribers of the world's largest ISP, America Online Inc. On top of that, it has successfully established something that Microsoft Corporation has been desperately craving for years--a method for reaping profits from Internet transactions. [1] Furthermore, it has managed to take the lead in setting the standards for the wireless Internet of 21st century. In less than a year, NTT DoCoMo plans to introduce for the first time in the history of the world wireless service based on third-generation (3G) standards [2] that will allow Japanese users of cell-phones to have an Internet experience very similar to that of users of personal computers connected to fixed lines.

So how did Japan manage to come from behind to take the lead from the U.S.? Didn't Japan "cheat" here once again to "steal" the lead from the U.S on the road to commercial success? The answer is that Japan has never been behind the U.S. when it comes to establishing the infrastructure for an computerized society. In fact, in spite of all the claims of American technological superiority that have appeared in the U.S. media for the last decade, the Japanese electronics industry has always been "ahead" of that of the U.S. when it comes to the planning and implementation of technologies for creating a computerized society in the 21st century. [3] This all began in 1982, when Dr. Ken Sakamura, a then unknown assistant professor from the Department of Information Science at the University of Tokyo, dared to flap the "butterfly's wings" in a small subcommittee on microprocessors and operating systems at the Japan Electronic Industry Development Association (JEIDA). His recommendations led to the launching of the TRON Project, which for roughly the last 20 years has been developing a "total computer architecture" for an age when all devices in the human environment are computerized and linked together. NTT DoCoMo's i-mode handheld Internet terminals are based on this concept and use TRON-specification technologies, ITRON and JTRON, at their core. In short, NTT DoCoMo's success is a result of near clairvoyant long-range planning, not cheating.

Near clairvoyant long-range planning--are you kidding? In a word, no! Just consider the facts. First, although many Americans believe that Net appliances are a recent invention of the U.S. computer industry, the TRON Project correctly predicted in the early 1980s that all devices in the human environment would be computerized and linked together. In fact, it made up a name for them, too--"intelligent objects." Ironically, the requisite means for linking these devices together came from the U.S. government, which developed and then put into the public domain the TCP/IP protocols of the Internet! Second, the TRON Project correctly predicted that hypertext would become the filing system of the future--even before it was invented at the CERN research laboratory in Switzerland by Tim Berners-Lee!! Not surprisingly, the BTRON-specification personal computer remains the only personal computer with a hypertext filing system, and that filing system is now being merged with the HyperText Transfer Protocols of the World Wide Web. Third, the TRON Project correctly predicted that there would be a need for a robust character processing framework for digitally archiving human knowledge. The current TRON character code framework can handle 1.5 million characters and is vastly superior to the Unicode standard proposed by U.S. computer manufacturers. Fourth, the TRON Project correctly foresaw that a "royalty-free open architecture" would be the only means to create a computerized society--almost a decade before Linus Torvalds started writing the open source Linux kernel!!! Numerous other examples of this clairvoyance, such as the need for real-time processing in networks and network programming languages, abound, but there is not enough space here to list them.

People throughout the world have been hearing for the last several years that Japan screwed up big time during its bubble economy days, which lasted from 1985 until 1990. Yes, to its current regret, Japan did screw up big time by creating and then collapsing the greatest economic bubble in human history. Hundreds of billions of dollars were wasted on things that should have never been bought, in particular overpriced real estate and golf club memberships. But just as there is a little yin in yang and a little yang in yin, Japan also made some outstanding investments during the days of its bubble economy. One of those was the TRON Project, which is a joint technology development project between academia and industry, not academia and the Japanese government. For a relatively small investment in the 1980s, the seeds were sown for Japan's rebirth as a computer technology powerhouse in the 21st century. The U.S. government, without basis, tried to kill off the TRON Project as a potential "trade barrier," which was trade negotiator doublespeak for a "technological threat." (Reason: TRON-specification products had barely hit the market when the USTR attacked the project.) What's more, Japan's political leaders and bureaucrats tried to help them do it, too. At the request of the USTR and Microsoft Corporation, they killed off an educational computer project that would have put the BTRON operating system in Japanese schools. [4] But good ideas do not necessarily die an easy death, and dedicated people with a dream sometimes dig in their heels and against all odds fight with all their strength to the bitter end. That's what happened in the case of the TRON Project, and as result Japan is superbly positioned to thrive in the field of computer technology in the 21st century.


[1] In an opinion piece titled "A Gift That Can't Keep Giving . . . " that recently appeared in the Washington Post, economics writer Robert J. Samuelson points out that most Internet commercial ventures--with the possible exception of on-line pornography--lose money. He then wonders aloud about what formula will enable them to become profitable. Actually, NTT DoCoMo has already figured it out and is now raking in billions of yen per year in revenue. I hope he gets a chance to read about it.

[2] The outline of the specification for 3G cell-phones appeared in an article in the June 2000 issue of J@pan Inc. The details of this specification are as follows:

The software for the 3G cell-phones will include:

Cell-phones based on the 3G standard will communicate with base station equipment using the Wideband-Code Division Multiple Access (W-CDMA) transmission protocol set promoted by NTT DoCoMo. Using variable rate transmission techniques, throughput will initially range between 64 Kbps (the same as an ISDN line) and 384 Kbps (the same as a cable modem line), but at some time in the future it is supposed to reach a theoretical maximum of 2 Mbps. Of course, actual throughput will probably be lower and will mainly depend on how many people are simultaneously using their cell-phones inside a single cell.

[3] This statement has the potential to upset a lot of American readers, so read it again. The author knows the U.S. has made many contributions that have enabled the networking of computers, such as the TCP/IP protocols mentioned above. However, networking personal computers and workstations is not the same thing as creating a computerized society in which all devices are computerized and linked together. The TRON Project was the first to propose this concept, and when it did, it was resoundingly ridiculed by American computers experts.

[4] The U.S. government likes to point out that the U.S. has a huge trade deficit with Japan, and it does--in manufactured goods. However, what neither it nor U.S. media organizations bother to point out is that the U.S. has a huge trade surplus with Japan in the area of intellectual property trade. Accordingly, in an attempt to protect and maintain the U.S. trade surplus in that area, the USTR pre-emptively attacked the TRON Project, and since Japan's trade surplus with the U.S. in manufactured goods had become a political football at the time, Japan's politicians and bureaucrats agreed to keep BTRON out of Japanese schools. Anyone who believes the U.S. government's trade policy toward Japan is aimed at "free and fair trade" should keep this sad episode of "managed trade" in mind.