Japanese software

Given the Japanese dominance of domestic electronic, cameras, etc., there was a genuine fear in the computer industry that a similar take over would be mounted in the 90's.

It didn't happen for many reasons; indeed Japan's own success made them the target for other Pacific Rim countries. Obviously one reason for the failure to take over the IT industry was the language problem. Because of the American influence English is the common language in the IT industry; Japanese doesn't even use a similar character set. As a result a lot of Japanese technical effort went into support for their own language which had no value outside of Japan.
In contrast Japan dominated the markets for mechanical devices, which have no language problems. In the IT industry this materialised in printers, disc drives, etc., but never gave them a significant presence in the PC industry. They were major producers of integrated circuit components, but that along with the PC was the big looser to Taiwan, Malaysia and now China.
One sector in which the Japanese IT industry thrived was in the mainframe compatible market. NEC, Fujitsu and Hitachi were frightening IBM in the 80's. The IBM System/370 and the following models were the target, ignoring Honeywell, Unisys, etc. They produced their own operating systems for these machines but made a marketing commitment to supporting the IBM software in the International market, focusing on hardware at the expense of software. This of course was the common trend at the time, the Japanese companies joining Amdahl, Comparex, and one or two other start-ups in the huge plug-compatible market. That market has shrunk over the years as IBM got their act together and successfully defended their own market. As a result Hitachi and Fujitsu now own what is left of those companies, including ICL. It would be most interesting to know what happened to their own software. It was sold in Australia and from there crept into England via Australian insurance companies. It had a good reputation and reportedly ran about twice as fast as the equivalent MVS system.
There is obviously no lack of skill in the Japanese software industry and there is no reason why they could not still make an impact internationally. Unix has been the obvious way for them to go forward after the IBM compatibles. This they have done with some success, particularly in the Engineering Workstation sector. But they are still surprisingly struggling culturally because they have been licensing Sun systems and utilising their Amdahl organisation for a lot of development.
The most interesting latest development is the move into the Linux market. This makes a lot of sense since the lower cost software makes the excellent Japanese hardware look even better value. Professional vendors of Linux actually sell the packaging, maintenance and other services around the "free" software. The Japanese would appear well placed to develop their own Linux offering but the most prominent presence is via the purchase of Turbolinux by Software Research Associates.
Turbolinux is one of the established Linux suppliers and along with SUSE and RedHat are well favoured by IBM. It is an interesting move then to note that Turbolinux and SUSE are teaming up to target the IBM server line of products. Is this I wonder the time for consolidation in the Linux industry with mergers strongly involving Japanese companies? This could well prove an embarrassment to HP/Compaq and possibly Sun and IBM in the near future.
The other area were Japanese technology is making an impact is in storage sub-systems. Again this is the high technology at which they are so good, but it also needs significant software products. Only the operator interfaces are language dependent. The software for managing SAN and NAS storage farms is a critical element and one would expect the Japanese, with their traditional strengths in engineering and telephony to make a strong showing. There are still the problems of standards and inter-working to cope with, but there is no reason why major Japanese companies, who are significant members of most standards bodies in any case, should have any more problems than the American companies. IBM, Sun, EMC, etc. are in competition with each other as wellas with the Japanese, so there is little likelihood of a cartel developing to keep the non-Americans out.
The trend towards more standard software and OSS in particular could at last see a serious presence emerging from Japan in the software industry in the near future.

Martin Healey, pioneer development Intel-based computers en c/s-architecture. Director of a number of IT specialist companies and an Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales.


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article 2002-12-20T00:00:00.000Z Martin Healey
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