TRON takes over the mobile phone world

Ken Sakamura is the legendary founder of Japan’s claim to operating system fame: TRON. A quick Google reveals a robust web presence for Sakamura and TRON. Sakamura is also, of course, Bob’s professor from his ill-fated two-year sojourn in a doctoral program at Tokyo University.

Joi Ito recently posted a brief note about his dinner with Sakamura on his ubiquitous blog. It seems like Sakamura still has his endearing fixation on all kinds of cute little devices.

CNN reported on Sakamura and his TRON project. This was also picked up at Slashdot. Their bottom line: TRON is wildly successful, running on hundreds of millions of devices, and Sakamura is an unassuming genius who left billions of dollars on the table in the interest of seeing his technology benefit the world’s masses.

Well, sort of. What’s happened now is that the part of TRON they used to call ITRON, the real-time OS, has indeed become the OS of choice for lots of embedded devices, particularly phones. That’s because it’s small and fast and robust. But actually Sakamura didn’t invent ITRON —it came from another group at Tokyo University. As with all the parts of TRON, Sakamura was mainly responsible for finding the technology and sprinkling it with the TRON holy water—a laudable contribution not to be sneezed at. The notion, though, that Sakamura would have been a billionaire had he charged one cent per device is a bit illusory. First, clients used the product exactly because it was free. Second, Tokyo University professors at the time weren’t allowed to have side jobs. Third, I don’t knew who does the math at CNN, but to reach Bill Gates’ level of wealth at one cent per unit there would have to be 4.3 trillion TRON devices, something that even the visionary Sakamura, who has long dreamed of massively ubiquitous computing, could not imagine.

The other pieces of TRON did not fare nearly as well. The TRONCHIP was one of the most CISC-y chips ever designed, with the further bad fortune to come out right as the RISC winds were blowing strongly in the late ‘80s. CTRON was an NTT-sponsored OS for telephone switches that saw only sporadic use. BTRON was the poster boy of the TRON movement—a cool desktop OS clearly inspired by the Macintosh, and with some truly useful features like a network-shaped file model. Its technical merits aside, BTRON lost in the same way that DesqView lost the desktop wars. It simply could not make it past the barrier posed by the massive installed base, hardball marketing, herd mentality, and critical mass of Windows.

We all love Ken Sakamura. We love his TRON house. We love his TRON toilet (I still remember narrating a video about TRON where I had to explain the toilet in English). We love his cool toys, his unbridled imagination, his almost child-like amazement at neat technogadgets. He is certainly in line for a spiffy award from the Japanese Emperor once he gets a few more gray hairs. He unquestionably is the single best symbol of Japanese computing over the last couple of decades and the next couple of ones. It’s just too bad that neither Japanese computing nor Sakamura could accomplish much more during this period, all the ITRON phones out there notwithstanding.

Leave a Reply