Open Door Policy

by Simson L. Garfinkel

NeXT is cracking open the Japanese market with native character support and surprise software availability

Next time you find yourself at Tokyo's international airport, just hop on the Narita Express for central Tokyo. Transfer once for Shinagawa station and once more for Shin-Kawasaki, a small community on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Walk up the stairs of the subway station, past the bank of vending machines selling cans of Coke, Pocari Sweat, hot chocolate, and beer. Leave the station, turn around, and you'll see the twin glass towers of the Mitsui Building about a half kilometer in the distance.

"You can't miss them," says James Higa to visitors from the West. "They're the only towers around."

Indeed they are. The rising sun glints off the glass of Higa's 16th-floor office, midway up the tower on the right. NeXT Computer K.K. NeXT's home across the Pacific.

West meets East

Like Gaul, NeXT is divided into three parts: United States, Europe, and Asia. "I run Asia," says Higa.

At first glance, Higa appears like any other soft-spoken, modestly dressed Japanese businessman until he speaks. In a land where English is a rarity, Higa speaks in a clear voice without the slightest trace of an accent. But lest you think he is an American with a Japanese heritage and last name, listen to him speak with his staff. Then Higa is the soft-spoken, cautious nihonjen, without a trace of Western articulation or manners. It's that seamless transition between English and Japanese, between East and West, that remains at the heart of NeXT's strategy to capture a piece of the Japanese market.

Times have changed since NeXT's single claim to fame in the Japanese market was its easy system for entering and reading Japanese Kanji characters. Nevertheless, NEXTSTEP's technical edge remains a strong selling point.

Until recently, Japan had an uneasy relation with computers. The problem was character sets. In additional to the Roman characters of the West, the Japanese use three other character sets on a day-to-day basis. There is the Hiragana, a phonetic alphabet with 83 different characters; and the Katakana, another phonetic alphabet with 86 characters that is used for words borrowed from other languages. Together, they comprise the Kana.

Then there is the Kanji, a Chinese pictorial character set brought to Japan by the Chinese more than 1200 years ago. Although the typical student recognizes 3000 Kanji symbols upon graduation, there are really many, many more symbols, frequently used for place names or kinds of foods.

When typewriters, and then computers, came to Japan, many people predicted the end of the Kanji. After all, typing on a keyboard with a thousand keys was more than unworkable; it was slower than handwriting. Some people predicted that the Japanese would have to stop using their pictorial system and only use the phonetic Kana. In recent years, however, computers have invigorated the use of the Kanji, mainly because of good phonetic dictionaries and sophisticated artificial intelligence-based systems that can pick an appropriate Kanji character from a phonetic spelling in the Hiragana or Katakana. Users type on a Western QWERTY keyboard (with the space bar split into a few extra Shift keys). The operator types the Kana for a word, a phrase, or even an entire sentence, and then presses a special key to cycle through the various Kanji symbols that have a similar sound. When the right Kanji symbol is found, another key substitutes it for the Kana text.

Opening the market

When the first Japanese version of NEXTSTEP was introduced for the Japanese market, NeXT's software was the only operating system from the West to automatically support phonetic entry of the Kanji character set in every application. Other operating systems, such as DOS or vanilla UNIX, required developers to write their own Kana-to-Kanji system for each program. At the same time, NeXT's 400-dpi laser printer was the only low-cost laser printer on the market with enough resolution to print the complex Kanji forms that make up the basis of written Japanese. NeXT was the obvious, right choice for Japanese who were interested in computing.

At the time, NeXT's major competition didn't come from other UNIX workstations but from Apple's Japanese version of the Macintosh operating system, which had its own host of problems; and NEC's bastardized version of Microsoft DOS, which, for protectionist reasons, wouldn't run standard DOS or Windows applications. It also wouldn't run on any IBM-compatible PC that wasn't equipped with special ROMs.

These days, things have changed. For starters, NEC's homegrown Japanese DOS is largely a thing of the past. Instead, most Japanese use IBM DOS J/V and Microsoft Windows-J, with standard shrinkwrapped DOS and Windows applications from the United States, on standard IBM-compatible PCs (though not necessarily with Japanese-language support). Windows-J comes with a Japanese-input program called IME and two TrueType Japanese fonts, giving many Japanese computer users the power they want at a price they can afford. Similar advances have been made in the Macintosh universe, where most of the problems with KanjiTalk have been worked out.

Meanwhile, Sun's SPARCstations have come to dominate in Japan's technical-workstation market. Most engineers with Suns on their desks use a special version of GNU EMACS (called NEMACS) running on top of an internationalized version of X Windows that allows them to enter phonetic spellings of the Kanji in a special buffer, cycle through a variety of Kanji choices, and send the result to the X Window program of their choice.

NEXTSTEP is still the only operating environment that gives every application program in-line Kanji conversion. NEXTSTEP is also the only multilingual system that allows different users on the same machine to enter the text and see their menus in English, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, and so on. Unfortunately, the market has dictated that standardized, low-cost hardware and applications are more important goals. To discover NeXT's new marketing strategy in Japan, you'll need to leave NeXT's headquarters and take a walk to the streets, where NeXT's partner, Canon, is selling NEXTSTEP for Intel in its chain of Zero-One shops throughout Tokyo and Japan's industrialized corridor.

Sales boom

According to Shigeru Kobayashi, who manages NeXT sales for the Zero-One shop in Tokyo's Shibuya district, sales started picking up when NeXT introduced NEXTSTEP 3.2 in the United States (the Japanese language version wasn't available until early 1994). In the last four months of 1993, says Kobayashi, the Zero-One store sold more than 50 NEXTSTEP for Intel packages.

Prices for NEXTSTEP in the Zero-One shops are remarkably in line with prices in the United States. NEXTSTEP for Intel retails at 98,000 roughly $882 (at press-time exchange rates). The developer version is priced at 228,000 ($2052). Those prices are rather amazing, considering that Japanese software traditionally costs two to three times more than the equivalent code in the United States. Canon also sells the white Intel GX as its new, integrated "NeXTstation," and the Zero-One stores sell Digital Equipment Corporation's Intel-based workstations at prices quite similar to those in the United States.

These aggressive prices might be one of the reasons that Japan accounted for seven percent of NeXT's worldwide sales last year, says Higa, who was originally recruited by Steve Jobs in 1984 to work on KanjiTalk for the Macintosh and followed him to NeXT a few years later. Those figures are even more impressive, Higa says, considering that NeXT didn't have a Japanese version of NEXTSTEP 3.1 available until September 1993 more than a year after the product was introduced at home. Before NeXT went out of the hardware business, more than 5000 black boxes were sold in Japan, according to Higa.

But above and beyond character support and hardware integration, NeXT has had its greatest success in Japan with what is perceived as a problem in the rest of its market: the wide selection of software that's available for NEXTSTEP.

The subject is software

English-language NEXTSTEP applications from the United States and Europe will run on Japanese-edition NEXTSTEP systems without modification. With the exception of programs like word processors, which implement their own text object, English-speaking applications will even support in-line entry of Kanji characters.

Nevertheless, few Japanese are willing to tolerate applications that do not have menus, inspectors, and alert panels translated into Japanese. At the same time, few of NeXT's third-party developers have had the resources or the inclination to translate their programs into Japanese. For these reasons, Japan has seen an explosion in native-grown applications for NEXTSTEP that rivals NEXTSTEP development in the United States.

At last count, there were more than 50 different Kanji-speaking NEXTSTEP applications for sale in Japan. Some of the programs are uniquely Japanese, like Bridal Vision Guide and Banquet Vision, both $30,000 programs for planning formal social events. Others are more mundane, like a package for integrating Display PostScript graphics into traditional C, Fortran, and Pascal programs. Nevertheless, Higa says, the most popular programs are translated versions of English NEXTSTEP applications. "Lighthouse is probably one of the biggest sellers here," Higa says.

Surprisingly, Japan has also become a haven for programs that are no longer available in the United States because their original publishers have gone out of business or lost interest in the NeXT marketplace. WingZ 1.2J and Improv J are still for sale in Japan, supported not by their original publishers but by Canon. Appsoft Image can be purchased despite Appsoft's demise. Canon is even selling its stock of black NeXTcubes and NeXTstations if you can afford them. (Canon had priced NeXT hardware in Japan two to three times higher than the comparable prices in the United States. Fortunately, the company has learned its lesson and is not charging high markups on Intel-based systems.)

Despite all of the available software, people who actually use NEXTSTEP-based computers especially transplanted engineers from the United States are quick to complain that they can't seem to get the programs that they want. That is, they can't pick up the latest copy of NeXTWORLD and have their company order a copy of NXFax or Create. The problem, according to these engineers, is rooted in both culture and regulation.

Culturally, Japanese companies are loath to order anything from outside the floating kingdom. American professors at the University of Aizu (which has a small but growing installation of NeXTcubes and NEXTSTEP for Intel machines) and at the International Media Research Foundation (which has a collection of NeXTstations for music research) report that their requests to order software and hardware from the United States are subtly discouraged, delayed, or lost by their Japanese superiors. "I've given up trying to order software from the U.S.," says one researcher in Tokyo. Others report that mountains of paperwork must be filled out to buy something as simple as a $69 MIDI converter.

The other problem is regulatory. Although researchers can call overseas from their home telephones and order software with their own credit cards, software purchased this way must be for their own personal use. Anything that is to be used by a business or university must be purchased from an official distributor, which usually marks up the price anywhere from 50 percent to 150 percent over the U.S. list.

NeXT's Higa sees these problems changing as NEXTSTEP gains momentum in Japan. "Software companies are very bad at worldwide programs, product support, and pricing and availability. So generally you have to go through whatever distributors you have to [get software into] in Japan. If there aren't any distributors, you are out of luck. [The problem is] especially acute during the start-up period.

"Once a platform starts getting momentum, it's not a problem. U.S. software companies will make a decision on their own to come in here, and you have all these Japanese companies clamoring to get the distribution rights," he says.

Higa is counting on NeXT's mission-critical custom-application strategy as the basis for his sales in Japan and the Pacific Rim for the same reason that it has been successful in the United States and Europe: Companies have tried shrinkwrapped software and been dissatisfied with the results.

In the meantime, one of the big problems that NeXT has always faced in Japan will evaporate when NeXT moves to NEXTSTEP 4.0. Until now, NeXT has always had to internationalize each version of NEXTSTEP to accommodate the Kanji's 16-bit characters. NEXTSTEP 4.0 will eliminate this disparity by using UNICODE (the 16-bit code that replaces ASCII and includes Asian characters in addition to European and Roman character sets) throughout the operating system.

"Even now, the systems aren't that different. The core is the same, Mach is the same, NEXTSTEP is the same. The only difference is the Kanji-input routines, the input manger, and the fonts. Other than that, it is pretty much the same system. The text object does two-byte, but fundamentally, in the English system, it does that as well," says Higa.

Eventually, though, even those minor differences will be gone, and NEXTSTEP will truly international. "In this age of Internet and global networking, we need a new ASCII that is multilingual," adds Higa. NEXTSTEP will surely be one of the first operating systems to have it.

Simson L. Garfinkel is a senior contributing editor to NeXTWORLD.