Scene: The outdoor terrace of a cafe outside Nice, France, with a good view of the Mediterranean. A young man and a young woman are talking. It is clear that they have just met.
Time: Late August 1995
Young Man: So you're on line also?
Young Woman: Of course. Everybody is, these days. It's the thing to do. It's obvious. Inescapable. Necessary. Right?
YM: Sure. Are you on PC-Van?
YW: No. Nifty-Serve. My friend has PC-Van, and I gave it a test drive. But I couldn't stand that dumb rabbit telling me what to do all the time. Too childish.
YM: Wow. I know what you're talking about. Are you into discussion groups?
YW: A little. I like the one on old movies. Some of us have a little sub-group, entirely about Casablanca. But mostly I use the net for e-mail and stuff. And the shopping. Grubbing around in the department stores is no good -- so overpriced, and, let's face it, that was for our grandmothers. And the discount stores are so tacky. I ordered this shirt from L.L. Bean. Like it?
YM: It's perfect. But I don't have much time for that kind of stuff. I just ignore the graphics on PC-Van and go right to the business news. It helps me in my job. When I come into work, I already know what the markets are doing, all over the world. And it's easier to log on very early in the morning.
YW: Tell me about it. I like to stay up late, and the lines are so clogged, even at midnight. Ring, ring, ring, ring, nothing, nothing, nothing. I can't wait until we're hooked up with the Web. But then, that will be slow, too, as slow as old glue.
YM: Yeah, it's a bummer. How about a drink? Whisky or something?
YW: I'd like a Perrier.
This hypothetical dialogue does not involve two Europeans, nor does it take place between Americans. Nifty-Serve is not a fictional stand-in for CompuServe, and PC-Van is not a body double for America Online.
These are in fact the two leading online services in -- guess where? -- Japan.
And the setting on the Riviera is not fanciful. A growing stream of Japanese, especially young ones, are taking their vacations abroad. The recent strength of the yen has decreased the cost of foreign travel and heightened the flood of travelers.
This little scene introduces a little-known fact: online services and networking are catching on at last in Japan. The Japanese love fashion and fads. This one is following the traditional course: a sudden surge in demand that soon causes shortages of the objects that are most desired.
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's answer to the Wall Street Journal, estimates that the number of online users in Japan has reached three million, an increase of 50 percent during the past two years.
Following Japanese practice, the major online services in Japan are more like Prodigy than AOL; they are not the result of an entrepreneurial start up but are supported by large companies.
Nifty Corp., which runs Nifty-Serve (with 1.11 million subscribers) is a joint venture by Fujitsu, Japan's largest computer maker, and Nissho-Iwai, a comprehensive trading company.
PC-Van, which also claims exactly 1.11 million subscribers, is owned by NEC, another computer maker that is especially strong in Japan's PC market.
Both Nifty-Serve and PC-Van have gained about half their current subscribers during the past two years -- after struggling for five years to attract the first half. Demand is expected to accelerate further.
In another typically Japanese phenomenon, infrastructure lags behind demand. North America and most of Europe are well ahead of Japan in the availability and capacity of high-bandwidth networks.
Both major online services are hastening to increase the number of access phone lines and points of presence. Meanwhile, congestion and access delays are an unhappy fact of life.
NEC, which so far has relied upon mainframes to manage PC-Van, has installed Unix workstations to share the load.
The online fashion has been accompanied by a surge in demand for PCs. Shipments of PCs to the domestic market increased by more than 50 percent during the second quarter of 1995, reaching one million machines for the first time.
Despite a sluggish economy that keeps teetering on the edge of a real depression, total domestic sales of PCs in Japan are forecast to reach five million units during 1995.
Foreign manufacturers like Apple and Compaq are gaining larger and larger shares. NEC is beginning to move away from its proprietary operating system.
Japan's online providers are accelerating their improvements -- partly because Big Bill is coming to town.
Not long ago, Microsoft finally began to catch up with Apple in the Japanese market after it belatedly completed a Japanese-language version of Windows. This time, it is better prepared.
Microsoft's Japanese subsidiary, like the cosmic headquarters in the US, experimented with bundled software for the Microsoft network that was made available with beta copies of Windows 95. The full-scale launch of the Japanese-language version of Win 95 is expected in November and December.
Japanese online companies are already worried about the impact of Microsoft's proposed lower fees.
And, at last, Japan will get a major online service with entrepreneurial roots. Justsystem, a relatively small Japanese company that has had great success with its Japanese-language word-processing software, plans to launch Justnet in January.
The latest release of Justsystem's word-processing application includes a GUI designed to facilitate access to Justnet.
Justnet's services are to include access to the World Wide Web.
NEC and PC-Van hope to beat them to it, introducing Web access in September. Nifty, not so swift, plans to go with the Web in January.
Advanced networking seems a sure-thing vocation for Japan, whose electrical/electronic conglomerates are among the most sophisticated suppliers of leading-edge telecommunications equipment in highly competitive markets all over the world.
From time to time, Japan's bureaucrats have promulgated ambitious network visions and dramatic targets that attracted global attention.
These have been useful to foreign advocates of improved telecommunications. They could invoke the risk of slipping behind Japan when seeking to get action from their own politicians.
Until recently, the real results in Japan were limited because telecoms monopolies and a sluggish ministry of posts and telecommunications have been slow to implement these visions. (And, often, quick to forget them.)
In addition, the slow acceptance of networking in Japan has been rooted in social structure and power relationships.
Japanese managers and academic patriarchs have preferred to keep their numerous business units and research teams isolated from one another. This facilitates control and reduces the chance that some capable younger person will get uppity -- and, worst of all, get away with it.
Networks could lead to easier, more informal lateral communication. This has consequently been seen as a threat to the established order.
Changing times, inter-generational differences, and the new disciplines imposed by lower margins in a hobbling economy are propelling far-reaching changes in the attitudes -- and management practices -- that have helped to delay the networkization of Japan.
The growth in online services is only one of numerous indications that many Japanese are striving to wriggle free from the constraints of the past.
Generational contrasts are one of the most striking features of this trend. The dialogue that begins this article may seem strange to foreigners whose image of Japan is based on the formality of relationships with visitors based on the code of hospitality.
That mock conversation is in fact a reasonable facsimile of the attitudes, style and preoccupations of younger Japanese -- especially when they are talking among themselves.
With younger people like this, and the growing communications resources they now have at hand, Japan could, just possibly, become the place where the capability for liberation attributed so often to networks might actually come true.
This article is reprinted courtesy of HPCwire. For a free trial subscription to HPCwire, send e-mail to email@example.com. Norris Parker Smith firstname.lastname@example.org is a journalist who specializes in HPC and high bandwidth communications.
Copyright 1995 Tabor Griffin Communications.
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