MSX: a standard for the world. David H. Ahl.
More than one-half of the consumer electronics products sold worldwide are made in Japan. Yet in the U.S., the Japanese do not have a single successful lowend computer. Why not?
If you listen to Microsoft--and 14 Japanese computer manufacturers did-- the reason is lack of compatibility, especially in software. In early 1983, Microsoft (USA) and ASCII/Microsoft (Japan) took it upon themselved to develop a hardware/software standard that was suitable for low-end computers. In late May this was presented to a meeting of Japanese computer manufacturers.
The standard was adopted immediately by six manufacturers who announced MSX computers at the Japan Electronics Show in Osaka in October 1983. Six other manufacturers have subsequently jumped on the bandwagon. However, the top two manufacturers in small computers, NEC and Sharp, have declined to use MSX. This is understandable in view of the enormous commitment both companies have made to their existing line. For example, the NEC PC-6000 is supported by some 1300 peripherals and software packages.
Microsoft chose an opportune time to introduce the MSX standard as most Japanese manufacturers of consumer electronics products had experienced a decade of consumer irritation and resistance as a result of the lack of standards in other products. Within just the last few months, various industry associations sponsored standardization conferences for 8mm video, digital audio cassettes, and compact discs to prevent repeats of the VCR (Beta and VHS) and videodisc (optical, CED and VHD) situations. Thus, early standardization in computer hardware/software was welcomed by most manufacturers.
Another reason the standard was well received is that most Japanese hardware manufacturers have generally lagged in providing supportive software for their computers. Although third party software publishers have filled the gap in the U.S., there are far fewer similar companies in Japan. Furthermore, until the advent of MSX, no single computer had the popularity in Japan of an Apple, IBM PC, or Commodore 64 in the U.S., and software companies were unable to grow and sustain themselves writing for just one machine. Nor were any American companies attracted to write software for Japanese computers.
The basic MSX specifications are shown in the table. As should be apparent, this is not a high performance machine. Instead, it is a good, basic, capable computer suitable for games, some educational applications, and programming in Basic.
Indeed, most manufacturers are selling their early MSX entries primarily as video game machines with the added capability of Basic. Several manufacturers are offering interesting peripherals that remove their machines from the game category, at least by a small step. Sony and Victor have added video overlay capability (but have no supporting software yet); Yamaha has added keyboards and music synthesizers; Sanyo has added a light pen; Pioneer has added a videodisc player; and Toshiba has added Japanese word processing capability.
Software publishers in Japan have responded enthusiastically to MSX. Already more than 100 companies have announced or shown products. At this point, most of them are games; nevertheless, more than 300 packages are on dealer shelves already.
Microsoft has already taken the next step and, in mid-March 1984 announced MSX- DOS. As might be expected, this is quite similar to MS- DOS and will allow MSX machines to read MS- DOS (and PC- DOS) disks although, of course, they will not be able to process programs written for other computers.
One other major advantage of a standard such as MSX is that as a result of volume production, it will be worthwhile for chip makers to integrate many MSX circuits onto a single chip. Kay Nishi, president of ASCII/%MICROSOFT feels that within a few years it will be possible to produce an MSX computer to sell profitably for $50 or so. Nishi carries around with him the designs for some of these computers of the future, one of which can easily be built into a TV set. In the future, he says, people won't have to make a conscious decision to buy a computer; it will just be in a standard TV set.
On the other hand, today most MSX manufacturers are taking a cautious approach to the U.S. market. Several are marketing their systems in Europe and the U.K. but feel that the U.S. market is still too big a risk. "Prices are going to Hell in a hand-basket," says Bob Bryson of Sony. "We have the outlets, but we want to make a profit. We'll continue to watch pricing before we bring our computer here, if we bring it at all." This view is echoed by most of the MSX makers who seem to agree with John Rehfeld, president of Toshiba, who says, "For now, I don't think MSX will do anything in the U.S. market."