Comparitive Study of the Computer Industry of Japan and the US

by Caitlin Howell, 1995 (caitlin at cs dot wisc dot edu)

The purpose of this paper is to contrast the computer industries in Japan and America. The paper is divided into six sections. The first section explains the relevance of the computer industry to the information revolution. The second section is a brief description of the two major components of the computer industry. The third and fourth sections, History of the American Computer Industry and History of the Japanese Computer Industry are self explanatory. The fifth section attempts to describe the current international situation of the computer industry. The final section relates expert analysis of and advice for the computer industries.

Information Technology Transforms the Economy

The computer industry is one modern economic indicator of the progress of an important but elusive technology called information technology. Information technology, or IT, is the technology used to efficiently handle information and ideas. Information technology is the means of getting maximum productivity out of people's minds. It is a means of expressing and sharing ideas. A system of writing or a drawing can be considered a primitive, basic form of IT, but today, IT has evolved into a powerful technology, combining electronics, computers, and telecommunications to sift through the enormous amount of information available in the modern world.

"The role of information is transforming the nature of the economy," commented Kenneth J. Arrow, a Nobel Prize winning economist at Stanford University.(Mandel,36) According to some economic experts, information and the control of information is becoming as important as the control of goods and services. Robert U. Ayres of Carnegie-Mellon University explains, "Labor and capital play a role, but while wealth has material aspects, it is essentially a form of 'condensed' useful information or knowledge. Its ultimate origin is the human mind." (Forester,2) Following the concern of the 1980's that the American economy would develop into a service economy, resulting in a lower standard of living, it now seems that investment in information technology is increasing productivity in all sectors of the economy.(Mandel,37) Using computers to manage and exchange information with such utilities as spreadsheets and electronic mail (email) memos is making businesses more efficient. Andy Grove, CEO at Intel Corporation, concurs, "Pervasive use of electronic mail squeezes all of the slack out of the system. ...Companies that use email are much faster, much less hierarchical."("The World According to Andy Grove",61)

This transformation of the economy is also transforming many individual careers. The infusion of high technology equipment requires workers who know how to use it. Departments which are most optimized by IT also experience the most layoffs as computers take on menial tasks of information management. At the same time, new jobs, often requiring workers with technical skills, are created by the growth of IT related industries. The US Department of Commerce estimates that business and consumer spending on high technology equipment accounts for 38% of US economic growth since 1990.(Mandel,37) As of 1993, the value of the world IT market is estimated at nearly 800 billion dollars. (Forester,7)

Today, computers are the most general, flexible, and widely-applicable use of information technology. Computers offer all kinds of formats with which to convey information or data: pictures, graphs, charts, publishing and word processing systems, spreadsheets, and more. It seems that a computer can be designed and programmed to convey any type of information imaginable. Because the computer is such an important information tool, control of the computer industry is vital to control of information technology.

The Makeup of the Computer Industry

The computer industry is composed of at least two closely interacting industries: the computer hardware industry and the computer software industry. The former manufactures computer machinery; hardware components include floppy disk drives, semiconductor based memory and microprocessor chips, keyboards and circuit boards. The latter manufactures software, also referred to as programs, sets of instructions that make the computer do what the consumer wants it to do. Some companies, like Microsoft, which manufactures software, manufacture only software or hardware, and work with other companies to deliver a useful system to the consumer. Other companies, like NEC and Apple, create most of their own system hardware and software.

Software comes in two types, operating systems and applications. If an operating system has been installed on a computer, it normally starts working when the computer is turned on. The operating system, or OS, gives the computer user a way to run applications and controls the machinery of the computer, including the microprocessor and disk drives. Popular operating systems include UNIX, NeXTstep, DOS and DOS/V, OS/2, and Macintosh's built in operating system. Most other programs are applications software, like word processors, communications and fax software, spreadsheets, and games.

The History of the American Computer Industry

In 1947, three scientists coinvented the transistor at Bell Laboratories. Soon afterwards, one of the coinventors, William Shockley, opened Shockley Semiconductor in northern California, and in 1957 eight of his employees left to found Fairchild Semiconductor. This somewhat disloyal entrepreneurial attitude became an area tradition which birthed tens of new companies. The small explosion of new semiconductor based companies gave the area the name Silicon Valley.(Dertouzos, 264)

The invention of the integrated circuit and the microprocessor followed the transistor. The first bulky computers became available to the public, and in the 1960's, mainframe computers, most notably IBM mainframe computers, became popular bookkeeping tools among large businesses. By the 1970's, IBM had a hold so strong in mainframe and minicomputer markets that it "represented not competition, but the environment." (Kidder, 14) Later, IBM's phenomenal strength led to the bureaucratic inertia that would be its downfall.

In 1972, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) announced the Altair, the first microcomputer that computer hobbyists and home consumers could afford. Although the Altair had to be assembled at home, computer visionaries saw it as a signal of greater things to come. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft recalls, "What excited us more than the [Altair] kit itself was the realization that the personal computer miracle was going to happen." (Ichbiah,21) In 1976, the first no assembly required Apple computer was announced, followed by the Apple II in 1977. Finally, in 1981, IBM announced a personal computer (PC) based on an Intel microprocessor chip, the 8086.

By the time of the event of the PC, IBM, America's largest producer of innovations in electronics, began to show signs of drowning in its own bureaucracy. The success of the IBM PC design group is largely attributed to a rare relaxation of company policy. One PC designer remarked, "I made more decisions in my first thirty days with the PC group than I made with my first fourteen years at IBM. " (Carroll, 31) In 1982, Compaq announced the production of an IBM clone, leading an entire sub-industry that would imitate and improve on the IBM standard. IBM, which seemed to underestimate the popularity of clones, the need to act fast in the growing microcomputer market, and the handicap of its own bureaucracy, among other problems, is now suffering immensely for its overconfidence. In January 1993, IBM reported an annual loss of 4.97 billion dollars, the largest in corporate history.

Each one of the advances made in computer hardware was matched by corresponding advances in computer software. Software programmers would race to see which company would be first to market software that took advantage of the power of each new and improved machine. For the Altair, Bill Gates and the other Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, wrote a version of the Basic programming language, targeting mainly computer hobbyists. Microsoft also supplied Basic for the Apple and the Apple II, as well as DOS, an operating system for the IBM PC. As the market expanded, Microsoft faced competition from companies like Personal Software, who marketed the first spreadsheet, Visicalc, for the Apple and IBM PCs, (Ichbiah,37) and later Lotus, originator of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, the best selling software program in the history of microcomputers.(Ichbiah,284) The invention of spreadsheet software is what turned the computer from a hobbyist's curiosity into a useful business tool.

The arrival of the Apple Macintosh computer on the market brought a new, user-friendly type of software that uses a graphical user interface, or GUI. A GUI is a way of communicating with the computer that uses diminutive pictures, called icons, to represent programs, and lists of commands, called menus. The computer user uses a mouse device to point at the desired commands on the computer screen, rather than try to recall them and type them in with the keyboard. The concept of the GUI was not originated by Apple, but in a prototype by Xerox called the Xerox PARC. The GUI was later imitated by Microsoft to create the Microsoft Windows operating system.

This sort of series of borrowing and improving on ideas seems historically inherent in the process of technological progress. However, it conflicts with ideas popular among Americans like individualism, originality, and the concept of intellectual property. Within the computer industry, this conflict has brought about fierce lawsuits, as in 1988 when Apple brought a lawsuit against Microsoft for the similarity of Windows 2.03 to their Macintosh GUI.

Although the American computer industry appeared to be prospering in the 1980's, it was suffering from the "hollowing out" that occurred as industries sent their manufacturing abroad. In the mid-1970's, the US had a formidable position in the transistor market. It held 95 percent of the domestic market and 60 percent of the world market. However, by 1987, the US supplied 40 percent of the world market, and 25 percent of the domestic market had been captured by Japanese suppliers.(Dertouzos, 249) The transistor was not the only component that the US lost. In 1979, it was estimated that 94 percent of the components constituting an average computer sold in the US were manufactured in the US. By 1989, only 66 percent were manufactured in the US.

At the same time, the personal computer is becoming extremely important in the American market, currently reigning as the second most popular consumer electronics product next to color televisions. (Armstrong, 53) Approximately 36 percent of American homes have a personal computer. Another recent development is the appearance of a viable market for multiple-PC homes. According to one study, sixteen percent of American homes with multimedia computers bought a second computer. (Armstrong, 55)

The computer software industry does not yet appear to be suffering the same hollowing out as the hardware industry. Capers Jones, the chairman of Software Productivity Research, comments:

Today the US is the world's greatest producer and consumer of software. Very few industries can boast of such a one-sided balance, based on data I have collected. My company estimates that about 40 percent of all the software running in the world, and about 85 of the software running in the US, originated in the US.(17)

History of the Japanese Computer Industry

The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) nurtured the early stages of the Japanese computer industry. In 1957, the Japanese government passed the Electronics Industry promotion law, which enabled MITI to secure funding, direct research, and propose strategies for underdeveloped electronics companies.(Forester, 43) To protect against foreign competition in the domestic market, MITI placed a 25 percent tariff on computer imports.(Forester,89) This helped computer companies grow to maturity in a competitive, if self-contained, domestic market. By 1987, Japan supplied 90 percent of its domestic semiconductor market, as well as 50 percent of the world market.(Dertouzos,248) It should be noted tat MITI's role in the computer industry has declined as the industry has grown, contrary to Western preconception.

Another strength of the Japanese industry is the keiretsu, or huge families of companies that are "vertically integrated," linked as mutual investors and suppliers. This tight relationship between suppliers and investors improved communication, mutual understanding, and consequently, overall product quality.

As illustrated in the American loss of the transistor market, over the course of the 1980's the Japanese computer industry gained increasing control in the world transistor market, and then in components of higher and higher complexity and importance. According to John Forester, author of Silicon Samurai:

Safe in the knowledge that patient, low cost capital, a secure domestic market, and government backing would prove more than a match for the mercurial entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, the Japanese systematically targeted one section after another. First it was basic memory chips, especially the 64K DRAM[dynamic random access memory], which the Japanese correctly viewed as the "technology driver" of the industry; next it was chip-making equipment, for the obvious reason that those with the best production equipment would produce the best chips, and finally, it was actual microprocessors ("computers on a chip"), because there was more profit to be made from these multi-functional devices.(46)

Indeed, as of 1989, the Japanese industry led the world in all capital equipment for chip production and produced 80 percent of the world's DRAM memory chips.(Dertouzos,250)

During its developmental years, the Japanese computer industry consisted mostly of improving products that were already being produced. Sheridan M. Tetsuno, author of The Technopolis Strategy, testifies, "In almost every case, Japanese manufacturers copied the American products, then gradually added their own features."(Forester,86) This enabled Japanese companies to invest in the total quality that Japanese craftsmanship is known for, rather than the hit and miss process of scientific discovery.

One recent example of this is the active matrix LCD (liquid crystal display) screen, invented by T. Peter Brody of Westinghouse Electric Research in Pittsburgh.(Forester,93) As of January 1994, Japanese companies have invested approximately 3 billion dollars in LCD technology, and control 95 percent of the world market for active matrix LCD screens. The projected demand for the screens is 8.4 billion dollars for 1995, which should rise to 15.2 billion dollars by the year 2000.(Gross and Carey, 44) The convenience offered by liquid crystal displays, combined with near-perfect quality yielded by Japanese research has made this an excellent investment.

In the late 1970's, Kazuhiko Nishi, the founder of ASCII Corporation and former head of Microsoft's Japanese division, convinced NEC Corporation executive Kazuya Watanbe to build the first microcomputer in Japan. The NEC PC8001 was released in 1979.(Ichbiah,55) NEC remains the top supplier of microcomputers in the domestic market, having manufactured 47% of the domestic installed microcomputer base. To foreign producers, the Japanese market remained almost impenetrable until recently. In 1989, Japanese manufacturers shipped over 90 percent of the units purchased domestically.(US. Dept. of Commerce, 27-15)

In 1993, Apple became the number two supplier of personal computers in Japan.(Gross, 43) In 1994, it supplied 16 percent of the Japanese PC market.(Holyoke, "Apple's Man..." 73) Because of the American "hollowing out," this success is deceptive; some components are doubtlessly being shipped from and to Japan. However, there are other indicators that the Japanese and American hardware industries are approaching a more equal balance. One Business Week article reports that Japanese manufacturers are starting to buy American components:

Not only are American made chips going into Japanese electronics, but more Japanese companies are selling finished American goods under their own labels. Mitsubishi Electric Corp. resells IBM mainframes in Japan. Hitachi Ltd. does the same with Big Blue's notebook computers. A dozen Japanese companies resell workstations made by Sun Microsystems, Inc.(Holyoke, "The Ties that Bind..."20)

The article also declares that Japanese industry may soon suffer "an American style hollowing out," due, not to competition from American industry, but to the availability of inexpensive parts from other Southeast Asian countries.

The growing Japanese microcomputer market may give the Japanese computer industry a chance to strengthen and solidify. (Please see Figures 6 and 7 for representations of the growing PC market and the international PC market share.) The idiosyncrasies of the Japanese language provide a chance to offer compelling, personalized systems to Japanese consumers that American companies may not be able to match. Currently, Japan has one third as many PCs per capita as the US. About 10 percent of Japanese businesspeople use PCs, 13 percent of which are connected to networks.(Gross, 43) As Japan recognizes the benefits of information technology to efficiency and productivity, PC sales are taking off. Japan will not be left out of the technology revolution. Tokyo University economics professor Yukata Umezawa adds, "Japan is firmly in a catch up mode. It's a mode we understand very well." According to the US Department of Commerce, the market for PCs and workstations in Japan is expected to increase 10 to 15 percent annually until it constitutes 50 percent of the world market, sometime in the mid-1990's.(Best Markets Report)

Although software written in Japan generally has less than one half the failure rate of software written in the US, (Forester, 98) the Japanese software industry is doing rather modestly. One reason is probably a lack of qualified programmers. MITI estimates that the Japanese software industry is 20 percent understaffed. Programming doesn't seem to attract very many university students. According to Toyohashi University of Technology Professor Sadahiro Isoda and Tokyo Institute of Technology Associate Professor Motoshi Saeki, "The number of students in Japan that get PhDs in computer science number less than 5 percent of those who do in the US."(64) In 1992 and 1993, this lack of interest prompted the Ministry of Education to found the JAIST and NAIST centers for "advanced science and technology."

Descriptions of Japanese "software factories" also sound promising. NEC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and Toshiba have developed software factories that incorporate advanced "software standardization and reusability"(Forester,98) into the programming process. In effect, Japanese software manufacturers hope to apply the concepts of mass production to a field that has been considered artistic and difficult to control.

The Status Quo: the Computer Industry Now and in the Near Future

In 1993, the US trade deficit in computers and peripherals reached 12 billion dollars, and in 1994, it is estimated to have been 17 billion dollars.(BMR) The US. Industrial Outlook for 1992 predicts that during the 1990's the "hollowing out" of the US computer industry will progress as foreign investors purchase and establish computer plants in the US. (27-15) Japan maintains a trade surplus in all computer technology related industries. In 1990, the US-Japan trade imbalance in electronics alone swelled to 22.3 billion dollars, the highest imbalance of any industry.(Forester, 7)

"The biggest challenge will just be keeping up with the business," commented VLSI Research President G. Dan Hutchenson. Information technology related industries continue to gain productivity, for example, the one hundred most productive computer and peripheral producing companies worldwide, which account for more than one half of the international market, increased production by 10 percent over 1992, totalling 318 billion dollars. (BMR)

The US imported 39 billion dollars worth of computers and peripherals in 1993, supplied almost entirely by Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. Japanese computer and peripheral production has increased about 13 percent annually, affecting a 21 percent increase in imports over the past 10 years.(BMR) However, in the face of the growing international market, Japan's share dropped from 27 to 25 percent over 1992-1993. The US controlled a steady 61 percent cut, even though exports increased only 1 percent over the same period.(BMR)

The focus of the computer market is expected to shift in the near future from the general excitement over PCs to PC networks. The increase in PCs which are connected to networks should increase sales of networking software and peripherals, and computers dedicated to managing network resources. Bill Gates explains, "Personal computing was qualitatively a very different thing than the computing that came before. The advances in communication, likewise, will create new ways of using communication for learning, education, and commerce that go far beyond anything done to date."(Brandt and Cortese, 37) Kenneth A. Pherson, president of Redbrook Technologies Limited in Massachusetts predicts, "PCs based on the powerful new microprocessors connected over networks will become the new mainframes."(Arnst, 47)

Another trend in the international marketplace is collaboration between companies, domestically and internationally. Information technology demands a wide range of knowledge and amount of capital beyond the means of many single companies. Currently, IBM, Siemens, and Toshiba are collaborating to develop a 256 megabyte memory chip. Collaboration also offers a safer investment than competitive development; a product of the expertise of three companies is more influential when creating a market standard than the product of one.

As for the driving force of IT, the silicon semiconductor microchip, Paul Horn, IBM director of silicon technology recently announced, "As far as we can see, there's no science limit for the next thirty years."(Port et al., 52) Since the production of the first silicon microchip, most improvements in speed and power have been made by increasing the miniaturization of circuits on the chip, and industry researchers expressed worries that the limit for this kind of improvement would be reached during this decade. This extension will give international microchip producers a chance to research alternatives like gallium arsenide chips, and provide tight competition as limits are stretched in the near future. (International microchip shares and sales are illustrated in Figure 1 and 2.)

There still appears to be no ceiling in sight for software sales. As of 1990, the world software market reached 110 billion dollars (Forester, 96.) (The recent progress of the software industry is illustrated in Figure 5.) The largest barrier that software producers have to deal with is convincing consumers to replace their existing software. That means that software manufacturers have to provide compelling improvements over old software, and offer compatibility with old software. Consumers are reluctant to throw away the time and money invested in the installed software base.

The Computer Industry in the 21st Century: Analysis and Advice

Overall, although American industry has donated some valuable ideas to the Japanese computer industry, Japanese success has a lot to teach its American counterpart. Some of this success is accounted for by cultural differences: Japanese attention to quality, social stability, and well-thought out national industrial strategy, three elements not generally present in the American computer industry, have had great influence.

The American idea of individualism, which is supposed to breed creativity and leadership, seems to breed conflict. Although individualism sparks small revolutions in the computer industry, a company cannot last without teamwork and good relationships between supplier and manufacturer and labor and management. Sadly, America's cultural richness exacerbates the problem.

Some strengths of the Japanese computer industry cannot be attributed merely to cultural differences. MIT researcher Charles M. Ferguson summarized the industrial advantages of Japanese companies in a 1990 article in Harvard Business Review:

Companies with excellent process technology, capital-intensive components production, and flexible high-volume assembly will dominate the hardware value chain... The most profound advantages will go to companies that have access to patient capital, that maintain close links with component and equipment developers and that can afford huge, continuing expenditures for R&D and capital investment.... These facts play directly into the strategic and technical strengths of Japanese companies... In contrast, US industry has superior design skills, but it is largely fragmented, undercapitalized, and shortsighted. It has failed to develop the structures, strategies, and operational techniques necessary for commercial success in the markets created by its own innovations. As a result, Japan could dominate world hardware markets even though US companies, universities, and standards organizations still define the state of the art in computer science, systems architecture, innovative design, networking, software and digital communications -- even in semiconductor memories, a 10 billion dollar market the US has all but lost. (Forester, 87-88)

Additionally, Japanese government has played a strong strategic role with Japan's economic leadership as a priority. In contrast, American government has aimed for military leadership. The US Department of Defense's research and development has made some important technological contributions, notably, the genesis of the internet, but most of these contributions are useful to the commercial sector only by accident. The Japanese government strategy has been a thoughtful plan that works directly with industry and that has gotten more clearly defined and more practical results. US government has further blocked commercial progress with antitrust policies. Although these policies can help domestic competition, they leave the computer industry fragmented, without the resources to be competitive internationally.

Experts suggest a few more examples from the Japanese computer industry. that the US should follow. To be competitive in the future, the US can no longer neglect capital equipment for computer production. The US must protect its software lead by increasing efficiency and improving quality to compete with Japanese software factories.(Dertouzos, 270) To win the Japanese domestic computer market, the US must take sales in Japan more seriously, and offer comprehensive service. (BMR)

Japanese industry sets an impressive example in employee education and retraining. Although recent downsizing of some large computer companies has overshadowed the wisdom of the Japanese lifetime employment policy, this sort of commitment to employees inspires an attitude of cooperation and loyalty that the US computer industry needs desperately.

The difference between Japanese and American research and development seems to stem from the cultural individualist and collectivist attitudes. Americans prize originality and scientific breakthroughs. Therefore, American spending on pure research is high, but not many discoveries are developed into usable technologies. Japanese seem to view new discoveries as something which should be developed to aid society and to maximize the usefulness of the discovery. Therefore, Japanese companies tend to spend less on pure research than on development. Another important characteristic of research and development in Japanese companies is that commercialization is an omnipresent goal, instead of research for its own sake.

In order to make up for ideas taken overseas, Sony's recently resigned founder Akio Morita suggested that the US borrow technology from abroad. US computer companies may need to overcome strict ideas about intellectual property to compete in a world that doesn't share them. (Forester, 203)

Finally, in the Japanese software industry, perhaps Japan can take advantage of an example from the US. Sadahiro Isoda and Motoshi Saeki suggest that universities improve their computer science and software engineering courses.(64) They also suggest international cooperation and exchange of ideas.


Before I began researching this paper, I had never considered a computer a commodity, only a machine that I hoped to write specifications or software for someday. The complexity of cultural and economic issues which surround the international computer industry fascinated me. I did not realize how interdependent different countries are on one another for the progress of technology.

For now, it appears that neither Japan nor America nor any other country will be able to exclusively dominate the computer industry, which pleased me because it means that many countries will have a chance to influence how the industry develops. In light of the fact that the computer industry affects the growth of information technology, perhaps coming developments and information exchange will enable Japan and America to understand each other better, as well as the rest of the world.

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