Evolutionary Network

Development of Japan's Computer Networking

Keynote Speech Prepared for
Japan - Germany Information Technology Forum,
Nov 8, 1994 Oita Japan

The process of Computer Network defusion can and should be seen as evolutionary process in biological terms rather mechanical engineering terms. The author believes that with the recent surge of interest in multimedia as well as new information infrastructure, same viewpoint is very important.

The term "informatization" was coined by the Japanese in 1960s and has been used as a guiding slogan for more than three decades. In early days this word was criticized as "Japanese English", but it is now well accepted and widely used in other parts of the world. Although this same word has been used for three decades, the definition had changed significantly at least in three generations. It can be seen as one of the evolutinary process.

The first generation of 'informatization' meant as 'Increasing Information' or more and richer information. People said that the total economic value of information produced would become as much as that of material goods. In other words, this is 'commoditization' of information. The second generation of 'informatization' was almost equal to computerization. Here it meant more use of data processing in business and industry, in administrative job, transaction and manufacturing management. The third generation of informatization, which is what we are facing today, can be seen as digitization and what I call 'De-commoditization'.

In the early '80s, the word 'New Media' became very popular in Japan. With the fully-digitized telephone network, then calld ISN (Information Network System) and later changed into ISDN (Ingegrated Services Digital Network) supported by optical fiber cables, all homes and offices will be linked by this digital lines around mid '90s to the end of the 20 th century. Many optimistic predections emerged, so-called 'INS fever' wide-spread, that was accerelated by the privatization of the telephone compnay, NTT, in 1985. Videotex service, which was called CAPTAIN in Japan was hoped to reach 1 million subscribers in less than 10 years. Homeshopping, homebanking, CATV, data communications, satelite brodacasting, video response systems..., many of these are quite similar to what we hear today with the surge of multi-media and interactive services. Most of these were planed, experimented and went to commercial business. Few of them, at least so far, made good return on investment. What was not predicted or planed at all was, the use of personal computers to link each other and form PC networking. The global Internet was non-exsitant in these 'New Media' scenario either.

The use of PC network in Japan started around 1984. Early adopters were mostly heavy users of PCs interested in technical subjects. But soon other people discovered the value of people-to-people communications and started to use the networks. Although there are two major commercial networks with very high popularity, many small and medium-sized PC networks with active participation of users are scattered throughout the nation. Most of which have some sense of community orientation.

According to an official survey conducted by New Media Development Association, there are 2,263 PC networks in Japan, and the total aggregation of members of 824 networks responded to this survey reached 1,950,000 people as of June 1993. Considering that some 30% of users may have more than 1 ID from different networks, the actual number of users is estimated as more than 1.5 million. The trend of total number of networks and users for the past three years are shown here.

Number of PC Networks and Users in Japan

PC NetworksUsers
1991 1,387 1,150,000

What makes PC networking different from other 'new media' was its capability to allow end-users become the actor of the game. They can not only send e-mails to each other, but form Special Interest Groups (SIGs), online forum, or computer conferencing, to share experiences often with highly emortinal messages, in addition to practical information of their subject of interests. It can create 'space', regardless of phisical conditions such as distance, time, gender, age, profession.

Nobody planed the PC networking. It evoleved from the grass roots. Many local Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) were strted by amateur hobbyists, a number of commercial venture originated by entreprenuers or by large corporations.

COARA -- A Grass roots Networking in Oita
In Oita, a community-based PC network was started in 1985 and became very popular and active. From the grass-roots up, an association called COARA ( Computer Communication of Oita Amateur Research Association, pronounced like Koala, the Australian animal,) was established in 1985. This voluntarily organized citizens group, COARA, has enthusiastically helped re-vitalize the region using PC networking by creating and sending information and promoted the human-to-human communication online.Now they are highly respected throughout the nation.

COARA recognized the importance of people-to-people, two-way communication in relatively early days when most of experts in Tokyo belived that Videotex or one-way porvision of information in commercial service was the mainstream of new media. One highschool student almost broke in to the conversation, started to write a series of his everyday life in the bulletin board, or "Cafe COARA", thus drew many members attention, most of these members were, of course, matured adults.

COARA soon started to draw advanced networkers from throughout the nation in addition to local users from the Oita district. They now have regular exchanges with PEN(Public Electronic Network) citizens from the City of Santa Monica, California,US, and with earnest members in Korea. Now COARA has 2,000 members including people from Korea,US, and some from Europe.

COARA also started to interconnect to the Internet in 1993. But that was not an easy task. Under Japan's extremely high pricing structure of leased line services and lack of commercial Internet access providers, COARA could not reach out beyond its local area through the global Internet until very recently. Now COARA is fully connected with IP protocol, but with only 64k in speed, and providing new homepage server with WWW and MOSAIC software.

More Challenges
Japan's "informatization" policy led many public initiatives including promotion of PC networks by local governments. However, many of these top-down initiatives have not produced much results. It is the grass-roots, bottom-up approach, that has given life to networking in local communities. There are some, not many, such community networks and COARA is one of these.

There are more challenges to come. First, Internetworking. As mentioned before, inter-local networking is what people want and insuring full Internet connectivity is becoming all the more important. Second is multi-media. With the faster processors and larger memory of PCs, people are starting to use and create video and sound material. They want to exchange these digital data as easily as texts. Therefore high speed network infrastructure with affordable prices is becoming increasingly essential.

Third is community building, but here it is not limited to geographic constraints. As clearly articulated in Rheingold's "Virtual Community", people are realizing the value of "Virtual Community". At COARA they used the term "online community" or "network community" back in 1987. There have been a very strong sense of virtual community among members of COARA. But we have seen some indication of threat to this shared value from both commercial and political ends as well as from more 'internal' end. Maintaining intimate "community" relationship when members reach more than a few thousands is challenging. Running technical operation under limited resources is a headache. Improving user interface and adding more functions to keep up with latest technology is no easy task. Users' own abuse, disagreements and destructive behaviors can be fatal.