"Rediscovering" BTRON and TRON VLSI CPU

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

At a recently held reception to mark the 15th anniversary of the TRON Project, I had a chance to talk with Mr. Yoshito Yamaguchi, a new convert to the TRON movement. "Super," as he likes to be called, has just established a new venture capital firm called Sennet that aims at marketing the BTRON-specifciation operating system all over the world. As a former vice-president of marketing at Mitsubishi Electric Corp., he naturally could be living the Japanese version of la dolce vita, which means playing golf to his heart's content. But Super apparently longs for the good old days of super marketing challenges, and marketing the BTRON-specification operating system on a worldwide basis certainly fits into that category. With that as a backdrop, we began discussing the intricacies of marketing BTRON.

Anyone who reads the computer news on a daily basis knows by now that the world of personal computing is in for some radical changes. The winners of the so-called "personal computer wars," Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., are watching with horror as a nightmare scenario unfolds before their eyes. The free alternative operating system GNU/Linux--for which thousands of equally free applications are available--is expanding its market share faster than any other operating system on the planet. Simultaneously, the price of entry-level personal computers has dropped as far down as $300. Personal computers are becoming nothing more than inexpensive electrical appliances, and the software that enables them to run is being reduced to a giveaway. With the future looking so bleak for the Wintel camp, how is anyone going to succeed with something new like the BTRON-specification operating system?

The answer is to take a look back in time, because we have been here and done all this before. Yes, once upon a time, there was an age in which the only personal computing devices were number crunching electronic calculators. They started out as very large and very expensive devices that cost so much money that ordinary people couldn't afford to buy them. It was great marketing them in the beginning, because there were big profits on small unit sales. But gradually competitors sprang up here and there, and eventually the market was engulfed in raging "calculator wars." As a result of the fierce competition, calculators got smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper until one day the one-chip calculator was born. That's right, all of a calculator's circuitry was eventually reduced to a single chip, which allowed the calculators themselves to be sold profitably even at extremely low cost. Today calculators are so cheap that every household--including single-person households--has not one, but several calculators in it!

I pointed this out to Super, and I told him I believe that personal computers--for the masses, anyway--are headed down this same road, the terminus of which will be the "one-chip personal computer." While this may be a highly unwelcome scenario for the current market leaders, who no doubt would go to great lengths to deny its plausibility, I told him that it will be the perfect opportunity for BTRON to gain a foothold in the market. More than any other personal computer operating system on the market, BTRON is suited to the one-chip personal computer application. That's because it's incredibly compact, and yet high performance. And what's the best microprocessor for running the BTRON-specification operating system on a single chip? That's right, none other than the TRON VLSI CPU, which processes incredibly compact object code. By etching a TRON VLSI CPU together with a BTRON ROM onto a single chip, a lot of silicon real estate could probably be saved for RAM, which is precious in a one-chip design.

So what are the chances of Japanese electronics companies "rediscovering" the BTRON-specification operating system and the TRON VLSI CPU for one-chip personal computer designs? That's hard to say, but clearly the price structures that have supported the personal computer market and its "more power at the same price" marketing paradigm are starting to collapse. Over the short term, cutting staff and shifting production overseas will allow manufacturers to stay in the black, but when everyone starts doing that, profitability will once again come under attack. The only viable solution, therefore, is a long-term strategy that aims at reducing the personal computer to a single chip, which is a technical solution to profitability that not all competitors can easily follow. Moreover, a one-chip personal computer would also introduce a new marketing paradigm, i.e., the "same power at a much lower price," which likewise would be difficult for many competitors to follow.

As the world's premier manufacturers of embedded systems, Japanese electronics makers have the engineering knowhow to become the leaders in the one-chip personal computer field. Moreover, they also have at their disposal the fabulous fruits of the TRON Project, which are well suited to the task. If, as the saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention," then there is an good chance we could see BTRON and the TRON VLSI CPU being "rediscovered" at some time in the not too distant future by none other than the companies that invented them. What a remarkable development that would be!

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

Copyright © 1999 Sakamura Laboratory, University Museum, University of Tokyo