Japan's computer failure

June 16, 1992

The failure of Japan's much-touted "fifth generation" computer project, finally acknowledged June 1 at a Tokyo seminar, should give hope to American competitors that it's hardly time for them to throw in the towel.

Japan announced the fifth generation a decade ago, another in a line of programs to teach its manufacturers how to compete in world markets. Earlier programs taught Japan's electronic giants how to make peripherals, such as disk drives and printers, well enough to take markets away from the American computer companies that opened them. Integrated manufacturers like Fujitsu and Hitachi outran the industrial boutiques of Silicon Valley in developing bigger and better memory chips. Thus, Stanford University researcher Edward Feigenbaum's 1983 book, "The Fifth Generation," burst like a bombshell. Would IBM go the way of Detroit? Could Cray Research be outrun?

A better question would have been why Detroit should give up the race. Heads-up competition was never supposed to be easy. Diligence in listening to customers' needs and excellence in manufacturing what they want were never qualities owned exclusively by any nationality.

Dr. Feigenbaum called the fifth generation "Japan's computer challenge to the world," but a challenge can always be met. America's computer builders, giants like IBM and the upstarts in Silicon Valley, met this one by boosting their own efforts. Some observers noted that the Japanese were trying simultaneously to re-invent computer programming and the hardware it controls. That would have been a nice leapfrog, but it was a bad bet.

Not only were customers moving the other way -- to "open" systems using common software languages and interchangeable hardware -- but the machinery the fifth generation focused on was overtaken by the desktop revolution. Work tasks moved onto small computers, especially connected in local-area networks. The biggest U.S. mainframes gained in power -- "massively parallel" designs and partial parallel designs. In other words, American computer makers kept on competing.

As one observer remarked during the heat of the fray, Americans are the world's best computer system integrators. The U.S. system has produced many more programmers and fostered greater creativity. Roundly challenged by the fifth generation, they showed their competitive mettle.

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