I Tron, You Tron, We All Tron

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2000

After being alternatively ignored, dismissed, and forgotten for the past 16 years, a university-industry Japanese tech collaboration is bearing new fruit as the wireless Web takes off.

by Steve Mollman

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO THE TRON project began with the vision of creating the "computerized cities of tomorrow." Headed by professor Ken Sakamura of the University of Tokyo, the project was a collaboration between university and industry, the latter represented by companies like Sony, Hitachi, and NEC but open to all. It was a grand vision that would take decades, even a century to realize, but by the mid-'90s the project was being referred to in many media outlets in the past tense as a failure.

But in fact TRON never died, and one of its offshoots, ITRON, is gaining increased relevance today as, among other things, the embedded real-time OS found in most i-mode handsets.

"The Real-Time Operating System Nucleus" came -- make that comes -- in various flavors: Business TRON, Communications TRON, Industrial TRON, (more recently) Java TRON, et cetera. Macro TRON is a sort of überTRON that will -- who knows? -- someday connect all the TRONs in the computerized cities of tomorrow. Each flavor has achieved varying levels of usage in the world. Chances are you've used ITRON many times without knowing it -- it's in all sorts of automotive and consumer electronics products from Japan -- but it's doubtful you've ever used BTRON.

BTRON was fated to obscurity from the get-go. At the height of US-Japan trade tensions during Japan's bubble years -- when tribes of angered Detroit auto workers could be spotted on the evening news ritualistically sacrificing Toyotas -- the OS kernel was barred from being promoted in the United States (with a little encouragement from Microsoft). It's hard to imagine Windows wouldn't have clobbered it anyway, but it's a shame the BTRON specification was never given a fighting chance. It is, however, still to be found in niche desktop OSes, most notably one made by Tokyo-based Personal Media Corporation. Cho-Kanji 2, released this July, has sold 150,000 copies and is especially popular among those needing an OS with a little more character, so to speak -- it includes more than 130,000 characters, including a vast number of kanji. (Compared to the 7,000 or so characters available in a typical culturally insensitive PC.) Characters from many languages around Asia and the world are found in this double-byte OS, and even Klingon will be added shortly. The product has all sorts of cool features -- it supports a vertical writing editor, for example -- but in a Windows world, it is, sadly, a niche offering. A Japanese librarian needing to enter family names in kanji would love it, but would most likely have to partition the hard drive of his Windows machine to use it.

ITRON, on the other hand, is embedded in all sorts of intelligent consumer electronics products from Japan: audio and video equipment, microwave ovens, printers, phones, vending machines. "Millions of TRONs are out in consumers hands," says professor Sakamura, who still leads the project after 16 years. "Sony's latest camcorder has TRON, it's installed in most cell phones in Japan, and Toyota's recent model contains about a hundred microcomputers with TRON inside."

The field of embedded systems -- think computer chips in small places -- is huge. Wind River Systems is No. 1 in the US, but ITRON still dominates in Japan. More often, though, neither is used, and instead makers of embedded chips write their own proprietary OSes. "There are so many companies providing their own in-house or proprietary operating systems," says business developer Tomoyuki Uda of US Software, an embedded systems specialist spearheading new efforts to promote ITRON in North America. "This market is so fragmented. It's kind of chaos right now. There's no compatibility -- which is why it's the best time to promote ITRON."

The difference between ITRON and other embedded OSes is that ITRON, with its visionary origins, is open, whereas other systems, like Wind River's, are proprietary. Picture a software startup writing an app for the wireless Web. If they're writing the app to an ITRON-specification OS from company A, for their next project they could easily switch to an ITRON-specification OS from company B and re-use the code from the last project. That's the beauty of open specifications.

Fractal Communications is a real-world example. The Tokyo-based startup is working on an application that will let cellphone-surfer salesmen coordinate spontaneous group meetings anywhere. Fractal will write its application to JBlend, an OS offered by Aplix that is compliant with JTRON (and thus ITRON) and "blends" in the Java platform from Sun. By doing this, the coders at Fractal know the code they write now will be compliant with any other JTRON-specification OS they decide to use in the future. This saves money and time -- critical in a hypercompetitive environment like the wireless Web.

Does any of this matter to ordinary users? Nope. Small-screen surfers and the proud owners of Net-enabled printers alike can safely ignore this information and it won't make a whit of difference. But it's nice to know that a visionary project like TRON has not only survived, but is gaining increased prominence as the "computerized cities of tomorrow" start to sound less like science fiction and more like the here and now.

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