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Monday, July 28, 2003

This professor could have been richer than Gates
George Nishiyama

The microprocessor chip which runs on TRON, an operating system developed nearly 20 years ago.
The microprocessor chip which runs on TRON, an operating system developed nearly 20 years ago. TRON has become the most widely used operating system, even more so than Microsoft’s Windows, having claimed the dominant share as the basic software for microprocessors used in digital gadgets. Had Sakamura decided to charge even one cent to each user of TRON, he would have been a billionaire by now. 

HE could have been as rich as Bill Gates, but Ken Sakamura says he’s fine earning enough to lead an "ordinary life."

For in the world of computers the obscure Japanese engineer stands in the top rank along with Gates, having developed an operating system that is more widely used than even Microsoft Corp’s Windows.

Sakamura’s system, TRON, is used to run items ranging from digital cameras to car engines, just as Windows operates personal computers.

What sets the two systems apart —and the fortunes of Sakamura and Gates —is that while Windows must be bought from Microsoft, TRON is distributed free of charge.

Had Sakamura decided to charge even one cent to each user of TRON, he would easily be a dollar billionaire by now, possibly even rivalling Gates, reputed to be the world’s richest man with a fortune estimated at $43 billion by Forbes magazine.

"I’m the engineer type, not a businessman," says Sakamura, 51, a professor at the University of Tokyo who developed the software nearly 20 years ago.

"I think Mr Gates is more of a businessman," he laughs, adding that he is happy with the salary paid by the school.

"As long as I’m leading an ordinary life, I have no problems."

According to a Tokyo University official, the annual salaries of its professors, excluding bonuses and allowances, range from seven to 10 million yen ($59-85,000). TRON is an "embedded" operating system running inside microprocessors, which control electronic devices ranging from mobile phones to fax machines and even kitchen appliances. Sakamura estimates that it is used in some three to four billion such appliances around the world, far outnumbering Windows, which controls an estimated 150 million computers.

Crushed by politics

When it was first revealed in 1984, TRON, which can be modified for use on personal computers, was hailed in Japan as homemade software which could break the dominance of Microsoft and free Japanese computer firms the burden of paying for the basic software.

But the dream was shattered in 1989 when the United States threatened to designate TRON as an unfair trade barrier under the Super 301 trade law when it learned of plans by the Japanese government to use the software for computers in schools. While Washington in the end did not name TRON as a trade barrier, the Japanese government abandoned the plan and many computer firms severed ties with TRON, fearful of angering the United States, their biggest market.

Sakamura said he was puzzled by the initial US move and disappointed at the ensuing reaction of Japanese firms, but it allowed him to concentrate on the original aim of developing TRON for use on microprocessors rather than on computers. "I didn’t have time to feel angry or sad. I had to get on with working on digital cameras and mobile phones," Sakamura told Reuters in an interview, adding that he was not worried about TRON’s future as he was confident of its technological strengths.

"The reason why it was not used for personal computers was not a technical one, it was a political one."

No hang-ups

Computer engineers say TRON, which stands for "the real-time operating system nucleus," excels in quickness, or performing tasks real-time, and is free of the "freezing" that is a bugbear of personal computer users.

"We’ve become used to our computers freezing maybe once a day, but you can’t have a mobile phone freezing in the middle of a conversation," said Masayuki Makino, a manager in charge of developing software for mobile phones at NEC Corp. Toyota Motor Corp, which uses TRON to control car engines, said the software is also ideal from a cost standpoint because it is an "open source," like Linux. That means the codes making up a programme can be obtained free of charge, allowing engineers to modify it according to their needs, like a chef improvising on an original recipe.

"We’re fortunate that there was something which met our needs regarding both cost and quality," a Toyota spokeswoman said.

Nearly 15 years after it faded into oblivion in the world of personal computers, TRON now boasts a share of around 60 percent as the operating system for microprocessors.

Holding a TRON microprocessor chip the size of a pinhead between his fingers, Sakamura said the market for such instruments and related businesses will grow to around 80 trillion yen in 10 years. But he insists he has no regrets about not making money from his invention, and has no hard feelings towards Gates.

"It’s not good to charge people for using something which is like a social infrastructure. It also inhibits the development of the computer industry. The very basic infrastructure should be free," he said. "But Mr Gates is free to do whatever he wants, as we live in a world of capitalism."

Asked about the operating system inside his own computer, Sakamura smiles broadly. "TRON, of course. I don’t use Windows."