These are exciting times in the world of home computers. The technologies of the last decade, from computer chips to video displays, are coming together and giving new meaning to the term desktop fusion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japan, where a combined effort of government direction, controlled competition, and state-of-the-art engineering have created a late-twentieth-century electronic playland. This month, Senior Editor Keith Ferrell takes us on a tour of that silicon wonderland in "The Japan Factor".
Americans usually think of entertainment when they think of Japanese electronics. But Japanese electronics affect business too, with products like notebook computers, handheld information managers, color LCD screens, and stylus-based input devices.
The move from toys to tools presents formidable challenges even to a quick-moving techno nation like Japan. But it's happening, and we'll certainly feel the impact and influence of Japanese engineering in our home computing devices in the coming decade, as we have over the last five years or so.
Japan is a world leader in electronics engineering, miniaturization, and production. This is a country that took a palm-size camcorder (the new Sony Handicam) from schematic drawing to finished product in six months. Most American companies would take six months to develop a survey for conducting market research into the profitability of such a camera.
But for all of its technological wizardry and innovation, there lies at the heart of Japan a puzzle: How is it that a country so attuned to the marvels of electronics and computing fails to embrace personal computers on a national scale? In Japanese businesses, it's common for several workers to share a computer or a dedicated word processor. At home, except for products like Famicom (what we call Nintendo) and PC Engine (what we call TurboGrafx-16), personal computers are as rare as hen's teeth. In schools, the much-admired Japanese educational system does mostly without technology, relying instead on memorization and discipline.
Likewise, attempts to link Japanese citizens through communications networks have yet to take hold. Designed to make possible those "cities of tomorrow" we all remember from countless Walt Disney news-reels, Japanese telephone and data networks designed for consumers have fallen victim to the very human trait of inertia. To update an old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but that doesn't mean you'll get a spot on "David Letterman."
Some industry sages link Japan's lackluster acceptance of home computers to cultural factors. The Japanese respect group effort over individual achievement, for example. If that's true, then sharing one computer among several workers seems a logical way of conducting business—one tool that enhances a the group effort.
Despite America's emphasis on teamwork, we are a country of individuals. We drive to work one to a car. We stress the personal in personal computer. We dream of the big play at work and at school, that moment when we're singled out from our peers as having made a significant contribution. Anyone who thinks American work groups would be happy to share personal computers has never stood in line at the fax machine.
The lagging home computer community in Japan has probably as much to do with the Japanese language as it does with cultural perogatives. Translating keyboard commands from kanji to computerspeak is a formidable challenge. Innovative solutions like handwriting recognition and touch screens lead the new wave of Japanese computers.
Japan's focus on group effort, and a sizable contribution from its government, have fueled that country's technological rise. Its fusion of consumer electronics with telecommunications and computers promises to reinvent the way we work with our machines. In the end, it may redefine the way we work with each other.