TRON's Silent Role in the World of Computing

Steven J. Searle
Web Master, TRON Web

While researching an article I recently wrote on Unicode, I came across a slogan on a Unicode-related page that stated, "When the world wants to talk, it speaks Unicode." This, of course, is not true at this point in time, especially in Japan where most Web pages do not use Unicode. And people here certainly do not use Unicode when they compose e-mail. So the saying is a little premature, but it got me thinking about the TRON Project in terms of rest of the world. TRON-based systems are used throughout the world. Unfortunately, since the project was unfairly attacked by the Office of the United States Trade Representative in 1989, not only don't Japanese electronics makers brand their products with the various TRON logos, many of them even refuse to disclose which products have TRON-based technologies in them.

For example, I recently downloaded Apple Computer Inc.'s new promotional videos on its QuickTime Web site. In one titled "Elope," a young couple appears to get married on a tropical beach in some sort of Polynesian wedding ceremony. Just before the ceremony begins, the groom gives a digital video camera to a native spectator to record the event, which he later downloads into his Macintosh computer to edit and burn onto a DVD-R for his parents. What caught my eye in the video was the digital video camera, since it looked just like an ITRON-based model that Prof. Sakamura took to Seoul recently. Moreover, there is a good chance that the DVD recorder in the Macintosh computer is also ITRON powered. "Imagine," I said to myself while watching the video, "ITRON is helping Mac uers' dreams come true, but most Mac users have never even heard of TRON!"

ITRON-based systems completing the digital video recording loop aren't the only TRON technologies in these new promotional videos from Apple. The PowerBook G4 keyboard layout with the digitizing pad in the front middle section, two wrist rests at its sides, and the key rows in the back is a layout that was pioneered on an experimental BTRON machine back in 1985. The TRON Project also developed an ergonomic keyboard that was copied by both Apple and Microsoft Corporation, which Microsoft marketed their as the Natural Keyboard. Moreover, the BTRON machine was the first GUI-equipped computer to standardize the hand shaped pointer (it first appeared in primitive form in the 8-bit computer age) and the message/tool bar at the bottom of the screen with the text input mode and the current time at the far right, which is now a standard feature on Microsoft's Windows operating system.

Of course, if TRON-originated ideas are appearing in the computer products of U.S. technology firms, then someone in U.S. technology firms must be tracking the TRON Project. There are, and they are big names. One big name who is open about this is none other than Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems Inc. According to news reports I have read, he readily admits that he designed Jini on the basis of Prof. Ken Sakamura's ideas about ubiquitous computing. Another is Bill Gates, chairman and "chief software architect" of Microsoft. Since almost no one in the American press bothers to follow the TRON Project, very few people in the U.S. have ever asked themselves why the chairman of Microsoft decided one day to call himself a software architect. Isn't it because he is patterning his activities after those of Prof. Ken Sakamura, Japan's most celebrated computer architect? It is well known in TRON circles that Bill Gates has done a lot of reading about the TRON Architecture.

In a recent interview on CNET titled "Gates' Grand Design," for example, Bill Gates sounded just like a TRON Project advocate. He talked about the need for real-time performance--"You have to have real-time plumbing in the operating system," he said--and he called computers communications devices--"But the future of the PC is to be a communications device," he noted. Both of these points have been fundamental thinking in the TRON Project since the mid 1980s. Incidentally, Alan Kay was the first to propose that the personal computer become a communications device that would allow users to communicate with themselves and others. Prof. Sakamura expanded that concept to include communication with interconnected "intelligent objects" throughout the human living and working environment. He was ridiculed when he first proposed this concept in the mid 1980s, but nowadays many companies in the U.S. want to get on the computerized device bandwagon.

In addition to the U.S., Europe also has been influenced by the TRON Project. In fact, most likely as a result of the success of the TRON Project, in May 1993 the Europeans launched their own TRON-style project, OSEK/VDX, which like TRON is a joint project between academia and industry to develop an open real-time operating system specification. However, unlike the TRON Architecture, OSEK/VDX is aimed exclusively for use by the automotive industry. The main participants in the project are the University of Karlsruhe plus major French and German automobile manufacturers, but there are many other participants from Europe, the U.S., and Japan, which has led to OSEK/VDX becoming an international RTOS standard. Needless to say, links have developed between the OSEK/VDX project and the TRON Project, and ITRON researchers have actually gone to Europe where they have given presentations at an OSEK/VDX symposium.

As a result of all this silent influence on the world of computing, I'm beginning to wonder whether the TRON Project shouldn't have a slogan similar to what the Unicode Consortium has. I'm thinking about something along the lines of,

"When the world designs computer systems, it takes a look at TRON."