International Standard Originated by Japan?
By Ikeda Nobuo
(Senior Fellow, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry)
IC tags are one of the hottest topics in Information Technology field. An IC tag is a semiconductor chip with the information and attached to goods to be utilized for inventory check or preventing potential shoplifting. A Global standard of IC tag is Auto-ID, which has been developed by MIT and Wal-Mart has also decided to adopt it. In Japan, an Auto-ID Center has been founded at Keio University and moving forward putting this IC tag into practical use.
Ubiquitous ID has emerged out of the blue and Prof. Ken Sakamura of Tokyo University is leading this new IC tag, which specification has not been fixed yet. It's just on the threshold that the connecting test has succeeded at last and only two manufacturers produce the IC tag. Why does Japan go its separate way to make a unique standard apart from the rest of the world?
Prof. Sakamura is asking for the government's involvement in the project, because it is the national interest to make a global standard originated by Japan that will bring profit to Japanese companies. This reminds us of the TRON Project, which was proceeded by Prof. Sakamura fifteen years ago. MS-DOS was the global standard at that time; however, he attempted to develop unique Japanese standard for educational PC and distribute it to schools. This project went down the drain in the end. Prof. Sakamura has recently formed T-Engine project to standardize TRON, which is subsidized by MPHPT (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications).
Recently the "reconciliation" between TRON and Microsoft has drawn much attention from media, but it was in fact a subproject of T-Engine that includes T-Linux and T-Java. TRON, nevertheless, is just one technology applied to only cell phones in Japan and is little known globally. Windows CE is a minority because Linux is becoming the international standard of embedded operating systems. Media is still obsessed with the techno-nationalism that assumes technological battles between countries.
Furthermore, MPHPT is going to allocate two channels in 5-GHz band for digital appliance developed by Japanese manufacturers and funded by government. The ITU (International Telecommunication Union) has recommended allocating 5-GHz band to the unlicensed band. High-speed wireless LAN (IEEE802.11a) which is as fast as optical fiber is a global standard now. U.S. and European countries have released several hundreds of MHz bandwidth to WLAN. Whereas, in Japan, no unlicensed band is available outdoors. If Japan makes own local standard and assign proprietary frequencies to it, it is bound to receive lots of criticism from the rest of the world.
"Japan Projects" on the Skids
The Japanese government used to throw immense fund into those Japan Projects. Especially big projects led by MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) were aimed to catch up with and outstrip US in IT field. MITI used to encourage Japanese manufactures to develop new technology. VLSI (Very Large-Scale Integrated Circuit) project in the 1970's was a remarkable success, but it was followed by unsuccessful projects such as Supercomputer, the Fifth-Generation Computer, TRON and Sigma, which bared little fruit in the market.
The Fifth-Generation Computer Project was initiated in 1982 and promoted for ten years. It had acquired funds of 100 billion yen initially, which was the biggest in the big Japan Projects. It started with lots of attention drawn from the world but ended with no attention at all, because the Artificial Intelligence based on mainframe computers had become dinosaur with the emergence of personal computers.
On the other hand, USTR put TRON on the list of "Super 301 clause of the Omnibus Trade Act" in 1989 and that led TRON to hold up. Prof. Sakamura claims that USTR was wary of TRON and ruined TRON by putting it on the list of Super 301 clause. But in fact, there was no personal computer with TRON in the market at that time. As MITI urged manufactures to get involved in the project but they were reluctant to do so, because it was hopeless to sell the computers that were incompatible with MS-DOS and had no application software. So just a threat by USTR had made them apart and the project had broken up.
The biggest failure of former MPT (Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications) is High-Vision. The word "Digital High-Vision" is confusing because the digital technology (MPEG) in use is completely different from the analog Hi-Vision (MUSE) that was developed by NHK. Original High-Vision had disappeared without any actual broadcasting. This failure resulted from the fact that they put too much emphasis on "excellence of Japanese technology", which brought wariness to the western countries. Standardization is politics and a fight to get its own way while making a pretense of international cooperation. Emphasis on "originated by Japan" is the worst sales pitch.
There is a myth of Japanese industrial policy that MITI realized the Japan's post-war miracle by leading many companies with administrative guidance and government funding. However, Prof. Michael Porter of Harvard Business School and his colleagues researched 237 projects funded by MITI and concluded that government intervention has very little effect for the industry. The industries that were heavily funded by government (e.g., airplanes and computers) are weak and the industries that received little government funding (e.g., automobiles and home appliances) are competitive. Inspired by Japan's success, many national research projects were set up in the U.S. and Europe, but they were no more fruitful than Japan's.
Lacking Viewpoints from Consumers
Looking back the paths of Japan Projects, they managed to work out in a fashion until 1970's but in 80's and after no successful project can be seen, and technology development projects led by government had gone out of the sight in 90's. Those declines can be attributable to the personal computers that have become mainstream of IT in 80's. Way back in the mainframe computers, it was easy to forecast how technology would revolve and Japanese government had clear objectives to catch up and outstrip U.S. In this age of personal computers, neither government nor giant corporations can have a control over the technology revolution anymore.
It seems that Japanese government is also running after the phantom of techno-nationalism, but no government or international organization can afford to set up the standard nowadays. OSI, ISDN, and 3G, recommended by the ITU were defeated by the Internet. It is consumers in the world to pick up the global standard. Any technology that missed a chance to become global standard is deemed to disappear. There is no possibility for Japan local standard to survive today. There was a local standard such as PC-9800, however, Japanese unique standard cannot make sense anymore today.
The reason the projects that stuck to the idea of "technology originated by Japan" failed is that they see the things from suppliers and lacked viewpoints of consumers. Companies want to make their own specification to a standard; however, the fact who originated it does not have any meaning to consumers. Wherever it comes from, excellent goods should become mainstream and bad goods should go down the drain.
If you want to compete in the world market, it is essential that the goods can be acceptable with world market. Even if you have competence in local standard, it would have no point. As Japanese market is rather big in size, more attentions are paid to local competition. Whereas, Taiwan and Korea, whose local market is small, have aimed for the world in first place. Now Asia is the largest supplier of semiconductor and personal computers in the world, but Japan has fallen behind.
Failure is inevitable in the IT world where the technology and the market changes very rapidly. The point is to learn from the past failure and never fall into the same rut, rather than to herd a number of manufactures in fear of failures. METI (former MITI) has given up such big projects but MPHPT still seems to be obsessed by past phantom. China committed to Linux nationally. If Japan is stuck with local standard, rest of Asian countries will be the leaders of digital appliances. It is recommended to go back to the basics; what do consumers want? And let the market itself pick up the fittest technology and government should stop intervening technology development.