Web Master's Opinion

How the USTR Saved the BTRON Subproject

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

In the first contribution to TRON Web's opinion section, Kumiko Kosaka lamented the fact that the TRON Project was "bullied" by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR). While it is without a doubt the USTR listed the TRON Project as a "candidate" for possible action under the Super 301 provisions of U.S. trade law for the purpose of "disrupting and/or derailing" the project, it may come as a surprise to Kumiko--as well as to the men and women of the USTR--that, in my opinion, the USTR actually helped the TRON Project in general, and the BTRON subproject in particular, to succeed.

The USTR helped the BTRON subproject in particular? What are you talking about?

Very simply, there were other threats to the BTRON subproject. The biggest of those was the opinion among many Japanese "business, technology, and media 'pundits'" that no Japanese computer scientist--no matter how brilliant!--had any business trying to develop a personal computer operating system architecture. This is a task best left to "clever westerners," they thought. Moreover, even if Japan could produce a world-class personal computer operating system, it would merely upset what a lot of Japanese business leaders preferred most, "a preordained market change."

It may come as a surprise to many westerners, particularly those currently working in the USTR, but in the late 1980s, it had been "preordained" that Microsoft Corporation's OS/2, not BTRON, would become the next generation personal computer operating system for business in Japan. Unfortunately, the "facilitators of preordained change" didn't realize it at the time, but the benificiary of their "preordained market change," Microsoft Corporation, was busily planning a preordained market change of its own--that Windows, and not OS/2, would become the next generation operating system for personal computers used in business.

So what to do with BTRON, which after all stands for "Business TRON"? One idea--which is still an excellent one that readers of TRONWARE keep pounding away at in letter after letter to the editor--was to use BTRON as the standard operating system for dedicated Japanese-language word processors, which are cheap and sell in the millions in Japan. Ah, but that was an "existing market," and existing markets are all subject to the "laws of preordained change." So BTRON could only be used in a new market that didn't exist at the time. There was only one of those on the horizon, and that was the Japanese government market for education computers to be used in Japanese middle school education in the 1990s. Hence it was decided that "Business TRON" was to be transformed into "Benkyoo [Study] TRON."

Anyone who knows anything about the history of personal computing knows that in the late 1980s and early 1990s Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh personal computer was much more widely used in K-12 education in the U.S. than were personal computers based on Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system. However, that fact didn't help Apple in the market for business computers, which is one reason why Apple has never been able to win more than a small sliver of the total personal computer market. However, the USTR claimed that locking BTRON into the dead-end education computer market was "interference in the marketplace" on behalf of Japanese technology. And they made that claim in spite of the fact that the proposed BTRON-based education computer was a dual operating system machine based on a 16-bit Intel microprocessor (everyone was getting ready to move to 32-bit Intel microprocessors at the time!) with Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system as standard equipment!! And so the BTRON-based education computer plan ended even before it got started.

Needless to say, the short-term effects of the USTR's interference were devastating. Japan's large computer manufacturers all turned their backs on the BTRON subproject, and the BTRON Independent Software Vendors Group (BISVG) consisting of 22 Japanese software companies collapsed. Some of those Japanese software companies even went bankrupt. On the other hand, the long-term effects of the USTR's interference were "extremely positive." This was because for the BTRON-specification operating system to get anywhere, it would have to compete head on for market share against Microsoft and Apple in the open commercial market for personal computer operating systems where there are only two ways to win--"you either offer higher performance, or you offer improved functionality."

As Japanese consumers can now see for themselves, the BTRON-specification operating systems produced by Personal Media Corporation offer both higher performance and improved functionality, and they promise to get even better in the future when they become the world's first truly multilingual operating systems. They will also become the first personal computer operating systems capable of using every last one of the kanji (Chinese characters) ever created for writing the Japanese language. Thus it should come as no surprise that more and more Japanese consumers are purchasing Personal Media's BTRON-specification operating systems for their IBM-PC/AT compatibles with each new release.

On top of that, it has become apparent to everyone except the "facilitators of preordained market changes" that the BTRON-specification operating system is superior to other operating systems for new applications, such as personal digital assistants (PDAs). Microsoft dearly wants to have its Windows CE operating system become "the standard" in this new market, and they are getting lots of help from some of Japan's largest computer makers in an attempt to conquer it. But as the sales figures show, the best selling PDAs--of which the "micro-BTRON-based TiPO BrainPad" is one--do not use Microsoft's operating system. Simply put, Windows CE falls short of its rivals in both performance and functionality.

There is a saying in Buddhism that is very easy to understand, but very difficult to apply as a life philosophy. It states: "He who causes me distress is my guru." In other words, when somebody does something bad to you, it is not necessarily bad for you; and when somebody does something good to you, it is not necessarily good for you. Only over the course of time is it possible to tell if something that happened in the past was good or bad. This, of course, requires constant reflection on the events of one's life over a lifetime.

Now, almost 10 years after the USTR's "bullying" occurred, at a point in time where BTRON is finally being purchased in "fair competition" on the "level playing field" of the "open commercial market" by the Japanese people, I think it has become clear that the USTR actually helped the BTRON subproject over the long run. In fact, it is my personal belief that the USTR saved BTRON! If the USTR hadn't attacked the BTRON subproject the way they had, the BTRON architecture would today be an insignificant, low-powered personal computing architecture languishing away in the dead-end world of middle school educational computing!!

And so, Kumiko, tell those little boys born in 1984 who were bullied at middle school that just like BTRON, which was likewise bullied, they too can become something better through their bad experiences. Bad experiences don't necessarily have to lead to bad results; bad experiences only lead to bad results if we allow them to.

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