Imagine competing U.S. designers of reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) machines, multiprocessors, and network architectures trading and sharing intellectual property rights to software or architectural components—while tacitly or explicitly denying imitative free riders from their circles of cooperation.

However, several large Japanese companies have established large venture-investment pools for acquiring intellectual property positions in new technologies and obtaining exclusive Asian distribution rights to new products. Thus they could form preferential relationships with friendly” competitors and add-on suppliers, permitting open systems competition while retaining some control over the diffusion of new architectures and designs to purely imitative, manufacturing-based competitors. IBM has an equity interest, gains some control of technology rights, and makes available its basic technologies, while product design is left to SSI.

Imagine a uniquely American or Euro-American variant of the Japanese keiretsu—one that exploits U.S. advantages in innovation, architecture, and design and that concentrates resources to reach competitive scale in components technologies and manufacturing. Design and services are more and more the bread and butter of relatively small, single-market companies with no allegiance to any specific hardware producer. It is therefore simply impossible for U.S. services revenues to offset a rapid decline in the manufacturing sector, even if Japanese companies never entered services markets.

By 1986, the leading Japanese electronics companies controlled 80% of the world DRAM market and held technological leadership over all U.S. producers except IBM. Japanese companies still faced enormous competitive disadvantages in production scale and technology during these years. So in 1961, MITI and seven computer companies established the Japan Electronic Computer Company (JECC), a computer rental company that bought systems from Japanese vendors and rented them to domestic companies at rates far below IBM’s.

Strict control of foreign computers, matched with government procurement of some 20% to 25% of all Japanese-made computers, helped a domestic industry take root. MITI also controlled the type and volume of computers IBM produced and required the company to export a large proportion of its production. As a result, the basis of Japanese competition shifts over time from cost and quality in commodities to cost/performance advantages based on superior process technology and engineering and then to superior product functionality.

Japanese companies begin with foreign technology, progress to internal development of process technology, and then move to internal product development and basic R&D. These attributes of Japanese industry are elements of a characteristically Japanese strategy for penetrating industrial markets. There is no need for the Japanese government to intervene to protect the domestic semiconductor market when six Japanese companies with deep, long-standing relationships account for more than 80% of Japanese computer production.

Because products are dependent on the market, they are also disciplined by it—unlike wholly captive operations in vertically integrated U.S. companies, which often become complacent. Similarly, Sony makes disk drives, televisions, and computer displays—including those used by Sun Microsystems and other U.S. companies—and uses these same technologies for its CD players, videodisk players, and PCs that retrieve text from CD-ROMs. End-products companies are finding it difficult and expensive to integrate backward into components sectors.

Innovative system architectures and products will continue to arise; architecture and design will remain important, even in mature markets. The basis of competition is shifting away from unique functionality and toward price and performance, which are increasingly determined by the design, process technology, and manufacturing costs of components. As mass markets emerge, small startups are displaced by large companies with superior process technology, manufacturing capabilities, financial leverage, and global distribution channels.

All information industries and products will become subject to the cost structures and general technological trajectory common to all digital products—already evident in the computer industry. They can be controlled through software and networked to computers and other digital systems. Today most semiconductors are mass produced, and the world market is an oligopoly of huge companies, dominated by the Japanese industry.

And as digital technology progresses, powerful and inexpensive personal systems, like PCs, are displacing expensive centralized systems, like mainframes. Most of the other components are made in Japan, and those most critical to a laptop—the liquid-crystal display, power-management systems, and compact packaging—are made by Citizen Watch, a Japanese consumer electronics company. To compete in the new digital information industry, U.S. and European companies must expand their alliances into a new industrial architecture, one that reflects the new architecture of digital systems.

The groups do support struggling companies in strategic industries such as computers, satellites, aerospace, and biotechnology. Keiretsu exclude foreign companies from much of Japanese business, for example, by denying them acquisition of any Japanese company that could serve as an instrument of market entry. In 1987, trade between Mitsui’s members accounted for 17.2% of the group’s total trade; for the Sumitomo group the figure was 14.3%. The average of the six groups was 12. 7%. As of the late 1960s, about half of the computers that were used by companies in the major industrial groups were made by their keiretsu-partner computer company.

Previously unrelated industries—cameras, computers, stereos, photocopiers, typewriters—are converging to form a huge, unified information technology sector, itself based on common digital components and standard interfaces. Digital technology is progressing at astounding speed, ushering in a new era of standardized, inexpensive personal systems designed and assembled from low-cost, mass-produced components. Computer technology research, the development and manufacture of components and the assembly of completed systems have grown quickly in the labs and manufacturing plants of China, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, among other lands.

Brought to you by Logic Supply, The I/ HUB is your home for industrial and embedded computing news, information, industry trends and new product insights. Industrial computers are engineered to provide 24 hour, uninterrupted operation, often employing carefully engineered, fanless and ventless enclosures designed to efficiently dissipate heat while protecting internal components from environmental damage ranging from dust and airborne debris to extreme temperatures, moisture and vibration. Embedded computer systems go by many names (Box PC, Gateway , Controller , Industrial PC etc), but an Embedded PC is essentially any specialized computer system that is implemented as part of a larger device, intelligent system or installation.

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