Friday, August 3, 2007

Embedded OS technonationalism

When I was beginning my doctoral studies in the mid-1990s,
the U.S. was still worrying about global competition between technological rivals like Japan and Europe. Among a certain crowd, everything was about economic competition within the “Triad,” Ken’ichi Omae’s term for the US, Japan and Europe. (Obviously before the rise of Korea’s per capita GDP and China’s trade surpluses).

A few American scholars even talked about “technonationalism,” normally in the context of Japanese industrial policy that was aimed at the US (and that we should emulate). (I was briefly part of this crowd, and published my first few papers in 1994-96 quoting some of this work, but never made any significant contributions.) This was both fueled by and fueled the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy doctrine that war was obsolete and economic competition was the wave of the future.

One of the biggest pre-Clinton proponents of such arguments was Laura Tyson, whose treatise Who’s Bashing Whom? earned her a ticket from Berkeley to chair President Clinton’s Council of Economics Advisors. After the White House gig, Tyson went back to Berkeley’s Haas School as dean and then moved on to become dean at London Business School before returning to Berkeley. (There’s no record of her covering any Sting songs or even Blondie songs after either the CEA or dean gigs). Meanwhile, the economist passed over for the White House job has become a bitter New York Times columnnist who no longer does serious research.

All of this being a long forward to an odd article from the SJ Mercury that I read Tuesday morning on the plane (out to Philadelphia) about Japanese industrial policy for automotive embedded operating systems. The Japanese government kicked in $8.4 million [check yen] to help fund a consortium of 10 Japanese firms to develop said OS. It includes the big three auto makers (Toyota, Nissan, Honda) and major electronics suppliers like Denso (which as Nippondenso began life as was a Toyota division) and Toshiba. The story of the Japan Automotive Software Platform (JasPar) was also written up Sunday in Yomiuri (one of the big Japanese dailies) and PC World.

The money is coming from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, née Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the famed tsûsanshô of Japan’s postwar economic miracle. Spending $8m on embedded car software seems like a far cry from MITI’s glory days.

In fact, Chalmers Johnson’s book on MITI and the Japanese Miracle was required reading for budding technonationalists (or for anyone else in comparitive political economy) in the early 1990s. Listening to Chal’s night school class in 1993-1994 (and the associated office hours) had more influence on my becoming an academic than anyone else.

The MITI of the 1950s and 1960s used trade restrictions to build up Japan’s infant industries. Mark Mason studied how MITi delayed the TI integrated circuit patent in Japan long enough for Japanese firms to develop their own semiconductor capabitilies without having to pay royalties. Marie Anchordoguy (the inspirtiaton for my earliest Japan research) did her Ph.D. thesis at Berkeley (before it became Haas) on how MITI built up Fujitsu and other Japanese mainframe makers, using liberal financing in the domestic market to enable Japanese firms to undercut the prices of the the superior IBM computers.

It’s not just the Japanese, since nowadays the French view of industrial policy (dirigisme) has become the norm at the EU: after one success in a perfect storm of market timing and technology opportunity (GSM), the EC has spent almost two decades in a futile attempt to recreate that storm. (Tuesday’s report implied the Europeans also have their own automobile software consortium but I couldn’t find it, only their trade association.) Presumably the Koreans and Chinese will follow with their own national consortia, and then the US Big 2½ automakers will scream to Washington that they need their own subsidies.

But I can’t figure out what the deal is with embedded operating systems — it seems such small potatoes. The Mercury newspaper article parroted the Japanese press release “A standardized OS across the industry could have some big economic benefits, making it easier to bring new automotive technology into multiple models and bring down costs.”

Standardization has such benefits, but that doesn’t mean the Japanese carmakers have to go build their own. They could standardize tomorrow on an off-the-shelf solution from Wind River or MontaVista and get the same benefits — unless of course “bring down costs” is a code phrase for “stop paying foreign royalties.”

Don’t want royalties? Embedded Linux (or BSD if you dislike compusory sharing) is already available off the shelf for any firm. Why is the government involved? Is it that METI has to put up seed money to get Japanese firms to share and work together?

As industrial policy goes, it’s much less interesting than something major like TD-SCDMA. I suppose government industrial policy for an embedded OS is like the old line about the talking dog — what’s interesting is that he talks, not what he says.

Instead of responding with more technonationalism, perhaps MontaVista (or even Wind River) could put together an international open source coalition based on open source technologies. Given the popularity of open source in Scandanavia, they might able to peel off Saab and Volvo, which (this week at least) remain American-owned. If they did, the Chinese firms could choose to leverage the GPL technology while free-riding off the toothless enforcement of compulsory sharing in China.

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zenzen said...

Interesting reading on things I've tried to understand?

Car industry will be one of the biggest sw opportunities after computing and consumer electronics (needless to argue why). Due the nature of driving experience and industry history they has managed to standardize main usability elements without any blocking IPRs (ref to comp. & consumer el).

Now, when they will need robust OS, support for different radios with rich connectivity layer and standard API's for many applications it will be interesting to see if industry dynamics can repeat history. Or will technonationalism lead towards fragmented market?

Anonymous said...

Joel, I think the reference you're looking for to the similar European consortium would most likely be Autosar. Although it is more standards-focused than implementation-focused, it is definitely a large European-based consortium of companies interested in embedded automotive software.

There is also the Artemis program. It is not entirely focused on automotive, but that is definitely part of it. And that program does involve government-funded implementation.