Microsoft vs. Historical Fact

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

After it was announced in September 2003 that Microsoft Corporation would be joining the T-Engine Forum, I wrote an opinion piece in which I outlined what was expected of Microsoft, and I even suggested that the company should try to create "good will," not a Microsoft forte by any stretch of the imagination, by developing software for BTRON. Of course, I didn't really expect Microsoft to develop software for BTRON any more than I would expect the company to develop a version of Microsoft Office for Linux. Microsoft is all about money and control, and neither of those is to be had in the world of BTRON. I did, however, expect the company's spokesmen to go to great lengths to avoid talking about the USTR's attempt to destroy the TRON Project for the benefit of Microsoft and other U.S. technology firms. To my great surprise, Microsoft Vice President Susumu Furukawa couldn't resist talking about the affair, and he even tried his hand at historical revisionism by blaming the debacle on an over zealous USTR.

In a joint interview with Prof. Ken Sakamura that appeared in the October 13, 2003, issue of Nikkei Electronics [1], Mr. Furukawa boldly declared that Microsoft had an aversion to using political power to influence markets, and he said that had anyone back in Redmond been thinking about doing something like that in 1989, he would have firmly opposed it. One of the news articles that is seared into my memory is an article that appeared in the November 28, 1988, issue of Business Week [2]. The authors of the article make it abundantly clear that it was Microsoft that was the first firm to run to the U.S. government to demand that the TRON Project be attacked and derailed, and Microsoft's director of Far East Operations at the time, Mr. Ron Hosogi, is quoted in that article as saying that if anyone tries to mandate the use of TRON, Microsoft is going to make a political issue out of it. The historical record is very clear; Microsoft tried to use the U.S. government to kill off TRON because it wanted a monopoly in operating systems.

Sadly, Mr. Furukawa did not limit his historical revisionism to the Nikkei Byte interview, which would have been the wise thing to do. He chose to utter similar nonsense at TRON SHOW 2004, where ironically he had been given the great honor of addressing a large audience of long-term TRON Project supporters at the opening session, many of whom know exactly what happened in 1988. At the end of his presentation, he tacked on the following, which is a direct translation of what appeared in the Japanese media, as a sort of a footnote.

Formerly, it was said that Microsoft has been in opposition to TRON, but as a living witness to history, there aren't any instances in which Microsoft has tripped up BTRON. We have put up [a policy of] co-action [interoperability] and co-existence. Although our standpoints are mutually different, I'm glad that we could actually [technically] cooperate with TRON, and that we could confirm that we were not necessarily on bad terms.

Apparently, Mr. Furukawa believes that if he utters revised historical facts enough times, then they will become actual historical facts. That may have been the case prior to the advent of the Internet, but it is no longer the case. It's easy to check facts and reference historical materials. Using my network of personal contacts, I was able to dig up the 1988 Business Week article below in a matter of hours. Imagine what Japanese reporters could dig up if they decided to look into some of Mr. Furukawa's statements in past interviews.

A lot of people are wondering why Prof. Sakamura is going along with this historical revisionism instead of challenging it. He has Microsoft over a barrel, so why doesn't he press the advantage? The answer is simple: he's not that kind of guy. He doesn't point his finger in anyone's face and tell them he's going to get them, and he doesn't conduct the project's affairs using a sociopathic business philosophy, such as "only the paranoid survive." It's because Microsoft has threatened competitors and subscribed to this short-term business philosophy that the GNU/Linux movement has grown so strong in the U.S. In Japan, the TRON Project, which has different goals from GNU/Linux, started receiving more support from Japanese business leaders, in part because working with Microsoft on Microsoft's terms was unbearable for them. The position Microsoft finds itself in today's is a classic example of your karma returning to you. However, the thing to do about it is not to try to change history, but rather the change the way the company does business.


[1] The following interview excerpt appeared on pages 208 and 209 in the October 13, 2003, issue of Nikkei Electronics. It has been translated and loaded onto this page for non-commercial purposes under the "fair use" provisions of copyright law.

-- The various newspapers have written up the cooperation announcement on this occasion as an "historical reconciliation."

Mr. Susumu Furukawa: In computer history, it is a fact that it's the day of a great turning point, but calling it "reconciliation" is a "misunderstanding."

Mr. Ken Sakamura: Calling it reconciliation means that concerned parties that were fighting get back together again, but it is not a fact that we were particularly viewing each other antagonistically. We're being asked if there was a grudge fight called "TRON versus Windows," but that's a great misunderstanding. Therefore, this is not a [press] conference in which we are declaring that we are making up with each other, but rather it's a presentation in which we will show that new technological possibilities for the future have appeared. I once had a bad experience in which the spread of the TRON Project was obstructed by the U.S. government, but I believe that the party that created the cause for that was not Microsoft.

-- In 1989, although it was temporary, TRON products became items subject to the Super 301 section [of the U.S. Trade Omnibus Bill of 1988], and it seemed like they would be excluded from the U.S. market.

Mr. Furukawa: In regard to the Super 301 section, there was an occasion on which my opinion was also sought; at that time, I went to extent of requesting that I want "TRON" removed from the targets. There are also industries that were expecting protection from the U.S. government in order to secure American national interests, such as supercomputers. But Microsoft had an aversion to that kind of approach. Even if one wins a market not with technological or business prowess but rather on the basis of political power, that will be nothing more than a temporary thing. At that time, if the U.S. head office had been thinking about trying to step into the Japanese market with its shoes on by ignoring Japanese rules, I would have firmly opposed it.

Mr. Sakamura: The T-Engine Forum that promotes TRON is a non-profit organization, and Microsoft is an enterprise. If the form of the organization is different, then its goals also are different. There should be no head-on collision between two organizations with these different natures. Moreover, as to TRON OS and Windows, they are things of a completely different nature, both as to their technical nature and the areas of application that they target. TRON attaches importance to real-time performance and has adopted an event driven scheduling system for embedded devices. It is a so-called control-type operating system. In contrast to this, Windows is an information-type operating system. It makes people, not things, its opposite. In other words, it employs a round robin type of scheduling system. There is unreasonableness in comparing these two completely different things in the same ring. Certainly, at one time, I advocated that it is possible to apply the TRON control-type operating system to a personal computer for educational use, and I have also said that BTRON is superior to Windows. That utterance has become the beginning of misunderstanding, hasn't it.


Copyright © 2003 Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.

[2] The following article appeared on page 132 of the November 28, 1988, issue of Business Week (Vol. Number 3801). It has been loaded onto this page for non-commercial purposes under the "fair use" provisions of copyright law.

Information Processing

An Open System that Makes the U.S. Feel Shut Out --- Japan's TRON standard is raising hackles at Commerce

Amy Borrus in Tokyo with Geoff Lewis in New York

Talk about being many things to many people. To Japan's Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI), TRON is a solution to the chaos caused by incompatible computer designs. It's also a way to reduce Japan's reliance on Western microchip designs and operating systems--the basic elements of computer ''architecture.'' To many U. S. computer experts, TRON is a nonevent, too late to be a technological threat. And to the Commerce Dept., it's a clever ruse by Japan to keep foreigners out of its computer market.

TRON, which stands for The Real-time Operating System Nucleus, is a massive, five-year-old Japanese project to devise a computing standard for everything from personal computers to robots to mainframes. Now, just as the first TRON products are emerging, it may become the latest bone of contention in the U. S.-Japan trade flap.

At a meeting with top MITI officials in September, former Deputy U. S. Trade Representative Michael B. Smith condemned TRON as a tool to hamper U. S. suppliers in Japan. ''We don't want the Japanese to create a specification that would preclude competition,'' he says. ''That's crazy,'' says one MITI bureaucrat. ''We have no intention of discriminating against any company.'' Nevertheless, the TRON issue is still hot. When U. S. and Japanese officials meet in mid-November to review antidumping sanctions against Japanese semiconductor companies, U. S. sources say TRON may be added to the agenda.

Open House

On the surface, TRON seems innocuous enough. It's the brainchild of Ken Sakamura, an unorthodox, 37-year-old associate professor of information science at Tokyo University. His goal for TRON is to create a universal computer architecture. It would, among other things, set a standard for handling the more than 10,000 characters in the Japanese language and vastly simplify interaction between different computers--even among computers in different nations. Moreover, it is conceived as an ''open'' architecture, meaning that any manufacturer willing to pay $4,000 a year can have the specifications needed to build a TRON computer. More than 100 companies, 13 of them foreign-owned (including IBM Japan), have joined the TRON Assn. Sakamura praises it as an example of ''volunteerism.''

But Smith and other U. S. trade officials claim there's something more sinister afoot. TRON, says one U. S. official, is a ''typical Japanese use of the standards process.'' Although the standard seems to place all competitors on an equal footing, its actual effect, they say, would be to exclude existing American products. The concern, says Intel Corp. Marketing Vice-President Ronald J. Whittier, is that the TRON specifications will make it possible for Japanese customers to buy products ''not on the merit of the case but according to the country of origin.''

What is bringing the issue to a boil now are reports that the Japanese Education Ministry plans to require TRON computers in all of the country's schools. U. S. officials estimate that the Ministry will subsidize purchases of about 2 million computers starting in 1992. Although the Ministry has not formally endorsed TRON, it is widely believed that such computers will get the nod.

'Against a Wall'

That has dragged Apple Computer Inc. into the fray. Apple, which has the largest share of the U. S. school-computer market, doesn't want to be shut out of Japan's educational system. After five years of slow sales in Japan--partly because of its own mis-steps--the company now wants to build a $500 million business there in the next five years. Delbert W. Yocam, president of Apple Pacific, says that so far he has had little luck getting Apple into Japanese schools. ''We're up against a wall,'' he complains. Microsoft Corp., which was the first U. S. supplier to lobby Washington about TRON, has backed off, at least temporarily. The company feared that TRON would end the domination of NEC Corp. personal computers in Japan. Those machines, which use Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system, have an estimated 50% share of the market. However, NEC has designed a machine that runs MS-DOS and TRON for the Education Ministry bid, and Microsoft is lying low. ''Our earlier concern was that there were government people backing a nationalistic approach,'' says Ron Hosogi, Microsoft's director of Far East Operations. He adds that ''it still could be a political issue if we find out that a government body or a quasi-government body mandates TRON.''

TRON is already a political issue of sorts. Specifications for the educational-computer procurement, for example, are being drawn up by the Center for Educational Computing, a joint venture sponsored by MITI, the Education Ministry, and Japanese companies. And although the computer divisions within the big Japanese electronics conglomerates often have reservations about the specification, they support the project because their chipmaking sister divisions hope to sell TRON components. U. S. computer makers operating in Japan have also believed it wise to join the association--both as a courtesy and as a way to keep tabs on the project. IBM Japan, which has a small share of the local PC market, has submitted a prototype machine for the education bid. And despite his criticism of the project, Apple's Yocam says his company is likely to join the association.

Some U. S. trade officials worry that a mandate for TRON in education would lead to a de facto TRON standard in business and other markets as well. Indeed, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. (NTT), the telephone giant, is supporting TRON as the basic programming for phone switches and other communications gear. ''It is a waste of time and effort to rewrite software for different operating systems,'' says NTT executive engineer Tetsuo Wasano. But NTT doesn't foresee a TRON-only policy, says Wasano. Meanwhile, Japanese chipmakers, denied licenses to manufacture the most advanced Intel and Motorola Inc. microprocessor chips, have embraced TRON as a way to compete in the 32-bit computer business. Fujitsu, Hitachi, and Toshiba are all building TRON chips.

Instant Obsolescence?

Still, the TRON technology itself does not pose much of a threat, critics say. TRON chips are three years behind other 32-bit microchips. Machines using them ''will have little software and performance that is at best equal to that of their competitors,'' says analyst Steven Myers of Jardine Fleming Securities Ltd. in Tokyo. And some Japanese computer executives privately admit their reluctance to back the new standard.

''What company really wants to make TRON the standard, thereby making its entire installed base obsolete?'' says one Tokyo computer company official. Toshiba Corp. is building TRON hardware, but ''we'll continue to support all existing architectures,'' says Hiroshi Fujita, a senior manager. Nor are software companies rushing to write programs for TRON. ''If there aren't a large number of installed machines, it doesn't make sense,'' says Saburo Kikuchi, president of Lotus Development Japan Ltd.

The only thing that can overcome the technical and marketing obstacles that confront TRON, say American observers, is pressure from the Japanese government and quasi-governmental institutions. That's why TRON is likely to remain on the diplomatic agenda for some time to come.

The Two Faces of TRON Software

An operating system, the basic software to run computers, will come in four varieties: BTRON for business and education ITRON for controlling factory machines CTRON for mainframes MTRON for communications HARDWARE TRON is also a 32-bit microchip that could compete with Intel's 80386 or Motorola's 68030 TRON will set graphics standards in hardware TRON keyboards will standardize how Japanese characters are entered in a computer DATA: BW

Copyright © 1988 McGraw-Hill, Inc.