30 May 2011

Previously unpublished article from the JHEO archives: Microsoft partners with top Japanese universities

This is a piece written in 2005 and never published (although parts of it were integrated into other articles, including freelance articles sold to THES).  It would be interesting to update this to see what ever developed from the IJARC initiative. Another development that needs updating is the so-called Asian OS (which was supposed to help Asia compete with the Microsoft monopoly in desktop and notebook OSes). A third thing that requires follow up is just where the TRON OS is at and is going. These all have to be updated with things like the following in mind: (1) Apple's resurgence, including in OS development, (2) Google's emergence as a key player in OSes, and (3) the presence of Linux OS in many aspects of networked and embedded computing. Other spin-off topics might include the importance of JAVA in embedded computing and the shift in personal computing from desktops and notebooks to all sort of mobile devices, including smart phones and tablets.    

Microsoft partners with top Japanese universities
[note: article refers to events and developments in 2005]
Charles Jannuzi 
University of Fukui

This summer [the summer of 2005] US-based software giant Microsoft announced the creation of the Institute for Japanese Academic Research Collaboration (IJARC) and appointed professors from some of Japan's top research universities to vet proposals and monitor projects. The move to sponsor research at the universities comes in parallel with Microsoft's increased cooperation  with Japan's global electronics manufacturers to set the next format for DVD video playback. More generally, the company's involvement in Japan centres on the development of more reliable and versatile products in robotics, artificial intelligence, machine processing of language, and portable computing, games and communication devices. However, the software juggernaut has held out the possibility that its largesse for the universities will not be limited to applied technology ready for immediate commercial development and may also be directed to basic research in fields of study not directly related to computers and software, such as biology and the environment.  

It is no coincidence that Microsoft's foray into sponsoring research with top research universities come about at this time [summer of 2005]. Over a year ago, by act of legislation, the Koizumi government earned one of its first substantial victories in its effort to liberalise the political economy with the de-nationalisation and individual incorporation of the national universities. As of April 2004, the administration and day-to-day operations of the former national universities have been transformed into 'national university corporations' (NUCs). Having lost their national-public status, the NUCs now have to compete more and more for funding and revenues, not only amongst each other, but also with the more numerous private universities, the best of which also want to be 'world class' institutions in both teaching and research. Though consolidated in number by about 10%, the former national universities (which have always dominated university-level research in Japan) now have much more freedom to pursue cooperative research and joint ventures with for-profit companies. In that connection, joint ventures and tie ups with private industry will be very important as the 89 new NUCs establish foundations in search of financial stability. Success in competition and multiple sourcing will help guarantee that. However, it is not yet clear how successful Japanese universities will be in sharing the revenues from the commercial success of applied research and technology.

Microsoft's move into university research in Japan has proven to be very well timed now that the country has an electorally renewed Koizumi government set on further reforms and liberalisation. Microsoft forecasts that it will spend around $6.7 billion worldwide on research and development in FY 2005, much of it in Asia. It already has research centres in Britain, India, and China--as well as in California's Silicon Valley and Redmond, WA, where the company is headquartered. Yet until now it had not tried to make any similar major research efforts in Japan. One reason for this has been the perception overseas that Japanese universities lack programming talent--except perhaps in coding for electronic games. But a significant part of the problem is the language and cultural barriers. Subsidiaries of global companies which succeed in Japan (including in recruiting top talent) become very nativised in their corporate culture and operations. And world-class research, especially applied research, has more often been attributed to Japan's top companies, not its university system.

Microsoft's pledge to fund research at universities in Japan is not entirely without precedent though. The company has had a partnership with some top institutions here for several years, providing curriculum related to software and sponsoring lectures. Most recently the company sponsored a series of lectures on computer games; not surprising, perhaps, given the popularity of computer games here relative to the unpopularity of Microsoft's expensive entry in the market, the X-Box. Also over the last several years, it also has shared its closely guarded, proprietary Windows source code with six top technical institutions for the purpose of developing more secure software and anti-virus programs. Microsoft, however, retained the exclusive right to develop commercial products from the results of the research.

Perhaps most significantly, late in 2002, Microsoft announced it would participate in a consortium of companies and academics promoting the 'T-engine/T-kernal' concept for the compatibility of networked household appliances and mobile computing and communication devices (info-appliances). Though the meaning of the name might be opaque, T-engine/T-kernel is actually a very important offshoot of the two-decades-old TRON operating system project at the University of Tokyo, Japan's top university for both scientific research and taught programmes. 'TRON' stands for 'The Real-Time Operating System Nucleus' and encompasses an array of software and specifications, all of them 'open architecture' (the opposite of exclusive proprietary software, such as the much more famous Windows OS). Incredibly, numerous versions and adaptions of TRON OS are found embedded in over a billion electronic devices worlwide, making TRON the world's most popular (though largely unknown) operating system. (In fact, the TRON project was cited back in the 1980s as a possible trade issue in negotiations with the US government simply because it was seen as a potential threat to the American dominance in desktop operating systems, negative publicity which seems to have kept TRON OS off of desktop computers.)  

Another reason why Microsoft may feel compelled to step up its presence in Asian computing is the recent announcement by governments and companies here that they would cooperate in developing an alternative operating system to Windows. The governments of Japan, China and Korea have announced quite publicly that their goal is nothing less than to break Microsoft's stranglehold on desktop computing, which they see as an obstacle to progress in the IT industry and the information-based society it supports. Though the impetus may well be self-serving, their efforts could help computing and networked communications all over the world if they succeed in developing software that is (1) faster and more reliable, (2) more compatible with a variety of applications, (3) more scalable to mobile computing and communications devices (including embedded systems), (4) costs less, and (5) can better handle non-western writing systems and languages.

For success of the Asian operating system, however, what is required first is source code and shared specifications that are accessible to larger numbers of developers (i.e., open standards, open architecture, open peer review, and collaborative programming). So the obvious choices have been, either in isolation or in combination, open standards software, such as Sun's Java, GNU/Linux, and the grandfather of open architecture computing, TRON. Some hybrid forms of Java-TRON and Linux-TRON are already being used or are in commercial release.

Not wanting to be left out, even Microsoft has admitted that the real-time speed and scalability of TRON OS has advantages for portable computing and communications over its product, Windows CE, an OS for info-appliances that has a very good graphic user interface (GUI) but has not enjoyed much popularity. Therefore, with developments in Asia in mind, it announced that it would make make the source code for Win CE freely available for manufacturers and programmers so they could alter the OS or adapt it to their own hardware needs. This means that Microsoft software could still end up in a hybrid form with TRON for a complex set of integrated, graphic-intensive applications, such as a car navigation system that has a Windows-like GUI coordinating satellite position data, digital radio, radio text and 3G wireless internet capabilities.

For the Japanese universities and institutes (and their previously non-profit projects, such as TRON) seeking funding from Microsoft, the chief question for the future seems to be: How do they arrange co-operation with a for-profit company so that they can also reap some of the monetary rewards that follow from profitable commercial development? For Microsoft the over-riding issue must be whether or not it can overcome its old exclusive, proprietary way of doing things and embrace the inevitable but unpredictable world of ubiquitous computing. In other words, can university-company tie ups actually find the right balance of cooperation and competition so that everyone benefits?   

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