´´ The Tron Project: How Japan Almost Ruled IT

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Tron Project: How Japan Almost Ruled IT

At a chilly winter day in 1989 the Japanese flabbergasted the world of tech. They presented a house, tucked away in one of Tokyo’s most fashionable neighborhoods, which was able to think, sense and act on its own. It linked millions of microprocessors in consumer appliances, business machines and telecommunication networks in one giant, cooperative web. 

The Tron House

The house would know when to open the windows, air-condition the room and water the plants. It would flush the toilet, flip the faucet and air-dry your hands. When the phone rang, it muted the stereo. If the homeowner wanted to cook a French meal, it would set the correct oven temperature, after presenting a recipe and how to prepare the meal on a kitchen monitor. All without manual human interaction.

The Japanese did it again. With this first smart house, the Japanese called it the Tron House, they demonstrated to the world that they still were ahead of the pack in terms of creativity and innovation in the field of tech. And the world was watching with awe.

Although, some less visionary tech consultants, like Gib Hoxie, weren’t impressed at all, commenting that: “The TRON house looks to me like an electronic whiz kid’s dream. (…) consumers are already disgruntled with digital videocassette recorders and microwave ovens. They find dials easier to use and are moving toward them again. (…) TRON isn’t addressing that at all. They say, ‘Let’s pull all of this together in a universal digital interface.’ That’s a nightmare to me. It means I can’t run anything in my house (…). Tron will be of no lasting significance”

More visionary tech gurus, like Bill Gates, certainly did not subscribe to Hoxies’ analysis. They had been following the so called “Tron Project” vigilantly for quite some time. And what they were witnessing was not at all to their liking.

The Tron Project

Tron stands for “The Real-time Operating system Nucleus”. It was developed by Ken Sakamura, a visionary associate professor of information science at the Tokyo University, in the early 1980s. Basically, Tron was a Japanese computing standard (operating system) for almost anything, such as personal computers, robots, mainframes, etc.

In the sphere of personal computers the Tron Project already had created quite a stir in the late 1980s, when the Japanese electronics giant Matsushita introduced a BTRON PC. A personal computer that stunned the industry with its advanced capabilities. The BTRON PC had an Intel 80286 chip running at 8 MHz and a meager 2 MB of memory. Nevertheless, was it able to display a moving video in color in a separate window.

More important, and nerve wrecking for Microsoft though, was that BTRON was intended to be offered as an open architecture. All the hardware and software blueprints would have been publicly available at the cost of an annual membership fee in the TRON Association, ranging from about $23,000 a year down to a modest $4,600. Microsoft feared that a TRON PC would end the domination of NEC Corp. in Japan, which was offering a highly popular computer that used Microsoft’s MS-Dos system, with an estimated 50% market share during that time. 

The Time surrounding the Tron Project

The time, in which the Japanese (MITI, academia and Japan Inc.) were pushing the “Tron Project”, was one of severe economic tension between the U.S and Japan. The U.S. was embossed by Japanophobia. Overwhelmed by stunning innovations, the superior quality, and low prices of a great many of imported Japanese products, U.S. companies were losing market share at home and globally at a frightening pace. U.S. foreign trade was essentially bankrupt. And the American workers were furious at Japan Inc., smashing publicly Japanese cars, stereo equipment, etc.

To the Japanese, the BTRON PC and the Tron house offered an intriguing glimpse at what the prodigy of their technological strengths and love of practical gadgetry can put forth. To the Americans, under the climate of trade friction, anything new and Japanese was considered an economic threat.

What really brought the issue to a boil were reports in the U.S. that the Japanese Education Ministry was planning to introduce Tron computers to all of the country’s schools. Now Apple, who had the largest share of the school computer market in the U.S. was alarmed, as it feared being shut out of the highly profitable Japanese market for educational computer systems. It was high time for lobbying in Washington.

In 1989 the U.S. software industry group, ADAPSO, concluded in a report on Japanese software that TRON had “strong undertones of nationalism and will have the practical effect of impeding foreign penetration of the Japanese market.”

The End of the TRON PC

The U.S. government objected against the Japanese school project. It called the initiative “actual and potential market intervention”. U.S. trade officials feared that the Japanese mandate for Tron in the education system would lead to a de facto Tron standard in business and other markets and threatened the move with sanctions.

Japan eagerly took to the message of the U.S administration, as Japanese media widely broadcasted a lot about the friction in Japan- US trade. Television incessantly aired images of furious American laborers smashing Japanese cars and stereo equipment. Those pictures made the Japanese government and industries shake in their boots. They feared restricted access to their most important export market and offered the U.S. the olive branch of Tron in order to calm things down.

The government quickly abandoned the school plan, and nearly all Japanese companies involved in BTRON-related activities canceled their projects. The BTRON PC was history. 

Final Remarks

Today’s standard of computing systems in the world is Microsoft Windows, which has been enjoying a monopoly for almost two decades by now. However, Japan was literally 10 years ahead of Microsoft, having developed a competitive OS already in the 1980s.

BTRON was never given a real chance. The TRON OS kernel was not only barred from being promoted in the United States, but also was dropped like a hot potato by MITI and Japan Inc. (with a little encouragement from the American hard and software industry, especially Microsoft).

It is hard to imagine Microsoft not having smothered TRON as an OS for general users anyway. Still it is a shame that the Japanese government had no strategy and Japan Inc. was such a coward. If they had envisioned the future rise of information technology correctly, they would have known about the superiority and importance of their software. They would have guarded the TRON project with all their might. Japan missed the chance at landing a claim as a global authority in IT.

If TRON had become the basic operating system for general users, Japan would be in a very different position regarding IT and how the world would view the country today. Japan had the chance to become a stronger nation but missed the boat, which I deeply regret.


Microsoft vs. Historical Fact by Steven J. Searle 

I Tron, You Tron, We All Tron by Steve Mollman (J@pan Inc)

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