Web Master's Opinion

BTRON: An Extraordinary Fifth Generation Personal Computer Operating System

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

The BTRON-specification operating system is finally beginning to get the recognition from Japanese personal computer users it deserves. As the TRON Project Leader's message from Vol. 53 of TRONWARE points out, the latest version of the BTRON-specification operating system from Personal Media Corporation is "popular," which means it's selling well. But why isn't it more popular? If it's so good, why isn't everyone in Japan buying it? The answer to that question is that people in Japan don't exactly know how to place it in their minds. At present, BTRON's ability to handle large numbers of Chinese characters (kanji ) is the thing that's drawing people's attention. But BTRON is more than just a character processor, or a multilingual personal computer operating system.

So exactly where does BTRON fit in in the overall scheme of personal computing? What makes it different from what has been produced to date, and what is on the market now?

These questions are best answered by dividing personal computer operating systems into generations, something that is rarely done in the technical press nowadays. In the beginning of the personal computer era, which means the late 1970s early 1980s, personal computer operating systems were distinguished by the types of microprocessors on which they ran. Thus first generation personal computer operating systems were 8-bit operating systems that ran on 8-bit microprocessors, and second generation personal computer operating systems were 16-bit operating systems that ran on 16-bit microprocessors. These operating systems used command line interpreters originally designed for computer professionals. Users had to type in short commands, of which there were many variations, to get their personal computers to do what they wanted them to do.

Later, as operating systems became larger and gained more functionality, generations were distinguished by what they could do. Third generation personal computer operating systems, which are typified by Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh computer, introduced today's ubiquitous graphical user interface (GUI) with multiple windows and command menus, which make computers easy to use. Fourth generation operating systems implemented various types of multitasking, which enabled them to do several things at once. In fact, personal computers became so powerful that they came to be referred to as desktop mainframes, meaning they packed the power of a room-size mainframe computer into a small box on a desk.

One thing that all of the four above generations of personal computer operating systems have in common is that they were all designed for processing tasks in isolation, which is not surprising since their technology is heavily influenced by mainframe computer technology that was likewise originally designed for the processing of tasks in isolation. They can, of course, exchange data via communications networks, but networking is not something that is central to their underlying designs. It wasn't until the fifth generation of personal computers that the concept of networking became central to the design of personal computers, and in the case of BTRON, this was extended to concept of networking in which complex tasks would be performed cooperatively in real time across networks of multiple computer types, not just personal computers or workstations.

The main characteristics of a fifth generation personal computer operating system are: (1) it's a single user, multitasking personal computer operating system, which makes it similar to a fourth generation personal computer operating system; (2) it employs preemptive multitasking, which means that no single task takes control of the computer when multiple tasks are being processed; (3) it's based on a microkernel architecture, that is, a highly efficient core, or nucleus, of functions around which the rest of the operating system is built; (4) multilingual capability, which is a necessity for operating inside international data networks, such as the Internet and the World Wide Web; (5) a design that centered around networking, which takes into recognition the fact that a single computer, just like a single human, can only do so much in isolation; and (6) support for multimedia functions, such as high-quality graphics and sound. Some technical experts would add that 32-bit processing should be added as a feature of a fifth generation personal computer operating system, which is true, but here the discussion is general and aimed at non-specialists.

Of course, the BTRON-specification operating system is not the only fifth generation personal computer operating system in existence. There are other examples, such as Apple Computer's MacOS X and Be Inc.'s BeOS, but these trace their roots to UNIX, which was and still is a "multiuser, multitask workstation operating system." This type of operating system differs from a personal computer operating system in that it was designed so that other people on a network can enter your workstation via the network and request it to perform tasks, such as accessing data on a disk, without your involvement. In other words, the underlying computing model of the UNIX-type operating system is "cooperative computing among engineering workstations inside a local area network (LAN)." BTRON's underlying computing model, on the other hand, is different. It is aimed at: (1) high-speed interaction with computerized devices (embedded systems) and/or other personal computers inside a LAN, and (2) high-speed interaction with centralized data servers and communication processors in wide area networks (WANs).

Some things that distinguish the BTRON-specification operating system from other fifth generation personal computer operating systems are: (1) it was designed for real-time processing inside real-time LANs and WANs, thus making it possible to respond to real world events in the proper time; (2) it's part of a total architecture, which is to say that it was designed in parallel with sister operating systems for use in embedded systems (ITRON) and centralized data servers and communication processors (CTRON); (3) it's an open architecture, meaning that anyone can use it without the payment of royalties; (4) it supports a hypermedia filing system at the operating system level, in fact, it's the first personal computer operating system to do so; (5) it takes into consideration the needs of handicapped users, which it aims to respond to with Enableware technology; and (6) it was designed from the start for multilingual processing, for which it is capable of processing an unlimited number of characters.

Unfortunately, there are still many members of the technical press who are not highly familiar with the BTRON-specification operating system, and thus they have a tendency to dismiss it as something that doesn't really embody anything new, except, of course, unlimited Japanese character processing and well designed multilingual functionality. Moreover, there are some technical writers obsessed with market share and compatibility with present technologies who get hung up on the fact that there isn't much software that has been written for BTRON. These attitudes then filter over into the general public, who end up confused about where BTRON should be placed in the computer cosmos.

Thus to those members of the general public who are confused about BTRON I would like to say, read again through the features enumerated above that distinguish BTRON from other fifth generation personal computer operating systems. Also, consider the fact that the design of BTRON began at a time when second generation personal computer systems ruled the world and third generation personal computer operating systems were just coming into existence. (That's right, TRON Project Leader Ken Sakamura was thinking two generations ahead when he designed the BTRON-specification operating system.) And then place in your mind the thought that "BTRON is an extraordinary fifth generation personal computer operating system," because that's exactly what it is!

The above opinion is solely that of the author,who wrote it expressly for TRON Web's readers.

Copyright © 1998 Sakamura Laboratory, University Museum, University of Tokyo