´´ The Tron Project: How Japan Almost Ruled IT

Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Tron Project: How Japan Almost Ruled IT

At a winter day in 1989 the Japanese sent chills down the spine of the world of tech. They presented a house, located in one of Tokyo’s most fashionable neighbourhood, which was able to think, sense and act on its own. It linked millions of microprocessors in consumer appliances, business machines and telecommunication networks into a giant cooperative web.

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 fancy meal, it would present a recipe and instruction on a kitchen monitor while setting the correct oven temperature. All without manual human interaction.
The Japanese did it again. With this first “smart house”, the Japanese called it the Tron House, they put the Rest of the World in their place when it comes to creativity and innovation in the field of tech.

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 “Tron Project” vigilantly for some time. And what they saw was not to their liking.

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

In the sphere of personal computers, the Tron Project already stunned experts in the mid-1980s, when the Japanese electronics giant Matsushita introduced a BTRON PC. A personal computer with unprecedented capabilities. Although running on an Intel 80286 chip with a meagre 8 MHz and 2 MB of memory, it was able to display a moving video in colour on a separate window.

More importantly, and nerve wrecking for Bill Gates, BTRON was intended to be offered as an open architecture. All the hardware and software would have been publicly available at the cost of an annual membership fee to 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 dominant position of NEC Corp. within Japan, which was offering a highly popular computer that used Microsoft’s MS-Dos system.

The time Japan was pushing the “Tron Project” were marked by severe economic tension with the U.S. Overwhelmed by stunning innovations, 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 and stereo equipment.

To the Japanese, the BTRON PC and the Tron house offered an intriguing glimpse what the future might hold. To the Americans, under the climate of trade friction, it was considered an economic threat.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Japanese Education Ministry 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 fuming. It feared being shut out of the highly profitable market for educational computer systems in Japan. 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 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 subsequently would lead to a de facto Tron standard in the business and other markets and threatened the move with sanctions.

Japan Inc. eagerly took to the message of the U.S administration, as Japanese broadcasters were incessantly airing furious American blue color workers sledgehammering Japanese TV sets and cars. It made the Japanese government and corporate leaders shake in their boots, fearing restricted access to their most important export market.

Finally, Japan offered U.S. officials 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 Tron project was history.

Today’s standard of computing systems in the world is Microsoft’s Windows, which has been enjoying a monopoly for over two decades by now. Although, Japan was literally 10 years ahead of Microsoft, developing a competitive OS already in the 1980s, BTRON never had a fighting chance. Not only was Tron barred from being promoted in the United States, but also dropped like a hot potato by Japan Inc. (with a little encouragement by Bill Gates).

It is hard to imagine Microsoft not having stifled TRON as an OS for general users anyway. Still it is a shame that the Japanese government had no strategy and corporate Japan 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. With abandoning the Tron project Japan missed out on being a global authority in IT.

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