Big game hunting

May 5, 2006

Japanese institutions are getting the chance to work with Microsoft, but they have questions to answer before they can claim prizes, says Charles Jannuzi

Microsoft spends billions of dollars on research every year, but it has shied away from striking any major deals in Japan. The company is at last changing that situation by backing the Institute for Japanese Academic Research Collaboration. Professors from some of Japan's top research universities have been appointed to vet proposals and monitor projects.

The move to sponsor research at Japan's universities parallels Microsoft's increased co-operation with the country's global electronics manufacturers to set the next format for DVD video playback. More generally, the computing giant's involvement in Japan centres on the development of more reliable and versatile products and software applications in robotics, artificial intelligence, machine processing of language and "info-appliances" - portable computing, games and communication devices. But Microsoft hopes that its largesse for the universities will not be limited to applied technology ready for immediate commercial development but might also be channelled to basic research in fields not directly related to computers and software, such as biology and the environment.

This is a good time for Microsoft to begin underwriting university research in Japan because the country has a Government set on more liberalisation.

Microsoft was expected to spend about $6.7 billion (£3.8 billion) worldwide on research and development in 2005, much of it in Asia. It already has research centres in Britain, India and China, as well as in California's Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington, the company's home.

Yet, until now, it has not tried to make any similar major research efforts in Japan. One reason for this has been the perception overseas that Japanese universities lack programming talent - except perhaps in coding for electronic games. But a big part of the problem is the language and cultural barriers - multinational subsidiaries that succeed in Japan must go native in their corporate culture and operations. Also, world-class research, especially applied research, has more often been attributed to Japan's top companies than to its university system. However, the past decade of economic recession has hurt corporate profits and caused companies to cut back on costly basic research. Japan's universities are expected to fill the gap by taking on more scientific research and development.

For several years, Microsoft has had a partnership with some top Japanese institutions, providing curriculum-related software and sponsoring lectures. Over the past several years, Microsoft has also shared its closely guarded proprietary Windows source code with six top technical institutions with the aim of developing more secure software and anti-virus programs. Microsoft, however, kept the exclusive right to develop commercial products from the results of the research. Perhaps most significantly, late in 2002 Microsoft announced that it would participate in a consortium of companies and academics promoting the "T-engine/T-kernel" concept to foster the compatibility of networked household appliances and mobile computing and communication devices (info-appliances). T-engine/T-kernel is an important offshoot of the two-decades-old Tron operating system project at the University of Tokyo, Japan's top university. Tron, which stands for "The Real-Time Operating System Nucleus", encompasses an array of software and specifications, all of them open architecture. Many versions and adaptations of the Tron operating system are already embedded in more than a billion electronic devices worldwide, making it the world's most popular, though largely unknown, operating system.

The success of the Asian operating system requires a source code and shared specifications that are accessible to many developers - that is, open standards, open architecture, open peer review and collaborative programming. So the obvious choices have been, either in isolation or in combination, open-standards software, such as Sun's Java, GNU/Linux, and Tron. Some hybrid forms of Java-Tron and Linux-Tron are already being used or are in commercial release. For the Japanese universities and institutes (and their previously non-profit projects such as Tron) seeking funding from Microsoft, the chief question for the future seems to be: how do they arrange co-operation with a commercial operation so that they can also reap some of the monetary rewards that follow from profitable development? For Microsoft, the overriding issue must be whether or not it can overcome its old exclusive proprietary way of doing things and embrace the inevitable but unpredictable world of ubiquitous computing. In other words, can university-company tie-ups find the right balance of co-operation and competition so that everyone benefits?

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