JAPAN: BOOK REVIEW - SILICON SAMURAI - REVIEW BY ROBERT HELLER. - By Tom Forester. Blackwall; 230pp; £19.99.

by Robert Heller was founding editor of Management Today.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

By Tom Forester. Blackwall; 230pp; £19.99.

Which of these views, both apocalytpic in tendency, is correct? First: 'Only in computers and software per se are the Japanese not yet dominant - but this may only be a matter of time, given Japan's growing stranglehold over key computer components and the merging of computers with consumer electronics, telecommunications and office equipment.' Second: 'The computer wars are a two-party contest between America and Japan ... the most competitive, swiftest-moving and hardest-fought industrial battle in history. With sound strategies, good execution, continued investment and wise public policy, it is also a battle that America can win.' The first view is that of Tom Forester, whose title (and, even more, whose subtitle) makes his uncompromising position perfectly clear. The second quotation, representing the opposite pole in a continuing and urgent debate, comes from Charles H Ferguson and Charles R Morris, authors of Computer Wars, (published in the US this year by Times Books). Their argument currently carries some weight, thanks largely to two companies: Intel and Microsoft.

Intel in microprocessors and Microsoft in PC operating systems both dominate the world in a style worthy (some would say unworthy) of IBM at its peak. The first has displaced the Japanese as the world's largest chipmaker by sales value, winning back a lost American lead: the second faces no worthwhile Japanese competition - and not much elsewhere. With these two seemingly impregnable fortresses, how can America lose?

You won't get the answer from Forester, who amazingly only makes a few cursory references to Intel and none at all to the software emperor. His brief discussion of the whole software issue - one of the fundamental battlegrounds - gets no further than this damp conclusion: 'For the Japanese in computer software, it's very much a case of if at first you don't succeed, try, try again'. As for microprocessors, already the dominant life-form in computer hardware, and rapidly becoming the only one, Forester almost completely ignores them.

His wholly unsatisfactory chapter on semiconductors concentrates on memory chips, where the Americans were indeed guilty of abject surrender. But Forester simply misses the harsh fact that in 1993 (his year of publication) memories are a commodity market in which Japan has suffered slumping prices, large losses and vast over-supply. Even more bizarre, he blithely skirts over the saga of Japan's much-vaunted Fifth Generation Computer Project, which ended in failure.

That failure, claims Forester, is a 'comforting myth': the aims of the project were 'modest', like the $450 million budget. In reality, though, the Japanese were hopelessly beaten by the Americans (including Intel) in the development of massively parallel processing, and the project's software achievement was so feeble that the results were finally offered to the world for free. Quite plainly, the author adopts a 'three wise monkeys' attitude towards Japanese prowess: he sees, hears and speaks no evil.

That's a great pity, since the argument is strong enough to survive impartiality. Examine the Ferguson-Morris quotation closely and it emerges as highly conditional: America can win, but only with 'sound strategies, good execution, continued investment and wise public policy'. As Forester shows with some ease, US strategies have often been deeply unsound, execution clumsy, investment misplaced or missing, and public policy foolish. Improvement is certainly in train but it could still be too little, too late.

Thus American companies have launched a serious effort to recapture some of the flat screen market. Since the Japanese have 98% of the business, that's not exactly a timely venture - nor a propitious one.

Similarly, in miniaturisation Japan is so far ahead that the laptop, notebook and notepad markets - where the US branded presence is ostensibly large - truly belong to the Eastern suppliers. The point could be made over and over: the US may own the brand peaks, but the Japanese increasingly have the component mountains. In so fast-moving a world, though, things can change rapidly - and that includes the technology. Predictions in this business have seldom come true. Probably, the truth lies between the two views quoted at the start. The war will continue, but nobody will 'win': how can they, when the two sides are already so interdependent and becoming more so?

At least Forester's over-documented and selective account sounds a loud and necessary warning. Even the status quo won't be preserved without strenuous Western effort. But anyone in the IT industry who didn't know that probably perished months ago - if not years.

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