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IT, shorthand for information technology, was a buzzword in Japan in 2000. Never before had computers and the Internet caused such a furor in the media. To be sure, IT had created a boom several times in the past, but its impact had been confined to the corporate sector. In contrast, the latest boom has had a sweeping impact on individual lives. It has been driven by two factors: the affordable price of a personal computer and the spread of Internet use.

In the first half of 2000, interest in e-commerce increased in this country, prompting Internet firms to go public. But most of these online ventures failed to turn profit. In the United States, quite a few Internet startups collapsed, while online trading between established companies gained momentum.

In the second half of the year, the government set up an IT strategy council with a view to improving the communications infrastructure, such as fiber-optics networks. Japan, it was pointed out, was lagging behind not only America but also South Korea and Singapore in high-speed communications networks, because of a low rate of Internet use.

Ten years ago, in March 1990, NTT unveiled an ambitious plan to build a nationwide fiber-optic network linking up offices, factories and homes by 2015 to provide interactive services. On the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. was pushing an “information superhighway” program chiefly for educational and research purposes.

The NTT plan was unique in that it aimed to connect homes, not just offices and factories, by fiber-optic cables. As such, it aroused interest in general applications of fiber optics both here and abroad. The U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton mentioned it in a 1992 campaign.

The U.S. program, initiated by Vice President Al Gore, did not make much headway, but its idea bore fruit in the private sector in the form of the Internet. The household use of the Internet spread quickly in the U.S., where personal computers were widely used to file income tax returns and where a flat-rate system was established for local phone networks.

In South Korea, the government pursued an aggressive Internet promotion policy following the 1997 economic crisis, which shook up the corporate world and sent talented big-business employees venturing out into new lines of business. Meanwhile, so-called PC rooms – where young people enjoyed network games over personal computers – mushroomed across the country. As a result, fiber-optics networks developed rapidly, making high-speed Internet services available at affordable prices.

In Japan, however, the growth of Internet use over PCs was slow. But the use of Internet-capable mobile phones, notably i-mode cellphones, increased dramatically, with the number of users exceeding 25 million in less than two years.

There is no other country where this many people are using the Internet by mobile phones on a daily basis. By contrast, the U.S. is lagging in wireless Internet use, in part because online services there have developed mostly through wired access.

Considering these developments, it is rash to conclude that Japan is an Internet laggard. Broadband Internet services for homes are just a few years old even in Internet-advanced countries. In America and South Korea, for example, it was not until 2000 that the number of users topped the 1 million mark.

Still, Internet use is set to expand at an accelerated pace. In Japan, the number of users is estimated to reach 3 million in 2001. With an IT basic law now in place, the development of the communications infrastructure, such as fiber-optics networks, is expected to make steady progress in the years ahead. As a result, the Internet will probably become a common means of communication like the telephone in the not so distant future.

In China, meanwhile, the number of people with a personal computer is still very small. According to a TV program introducing the Internet situation there, there is a boom in so-called Internet cafes, where many Internet-ready PCs are installed so people can use them at a price for a given period of service.

On scene showed customers looking up home pages. In an interview with a reporter, one person said, “It’s very easy to get job information on the Internet. Now I don’t have to look up help-wanted ads in the newspapers.” In fact, the Internet is making the job hunt a lot easier, allowing many people to find the jobs they want.

The Internet is also proving a boon to employers. In a country teemping with over 1.2 billion people, recruiting workers is no easy task. Distributing job magazines across the vast land or putting out ads in every major newspaper is practically impossible. Now, thanks to online recruiting, employers can put the right person in the right place.

In Japan, similar Internet services, such as job and information services, are also enjoying a boom. Various companies, large and small, are providing IT-based information services, allowing business to be conducted at countless sites.

The Internet, which involves general-purpose technology, can meet a wide variety of needs if it is properly used. Since it is used as a means of both mass communications and personal communications, the Internet can efficiently connect people from all walks of life. Unlike a centralized government that presides over a tightly controlled society, the Internet is an ideal tool for building a loosely knit society that allows for voluntary cooperation among its diverse members.

It should be noted, however, that the economic effect of the Internet is indirect. First, it is difficult to make profit only from the provision of information. In Japan, Yahoo Japan, an Internet portal, is about the only firm that is making money through information provision. The main source of revenue is advertising.

Making profit directly is even more difficult. Customers get only information about products on the computer screen. The provision of such information does not necessarily lead to the rapid expansion of consumption. The introduction of IT services is no guarantee that sales will double or triple.

Turing to the personal computer, not everyone is familiar with the machine, which many people still find it difficult to use. In the last Christmas shopping season in the U.S., PC sales were sluggish. While more than half the U.S. households already have computers, a large number of Americans, mostly elderly, are loath to use them.

Technical factors are preventing the further spread of PC use. For one thing, operating systems for commercial use undergo such frequent version updates that they are liable to become unstable. Moreover, the machine itself is still difficult to use.

It is widely thought, and not only in the U.S., that the monopoly on basic software, or operating systems, has created many problems. In Japan, this has effectively prevented the development not only of basic software but applications software as well. Just System, the producer of Japanese-language word processors, has suffered in sales because of Microsoft.

China is understandably concerned about the possible consequences of dependence on a PC operating system that holds a dominant market share. For this reason, Beijing is encouraging the use of Linux, the open-source operating system whose programs are publicly disclosed. Indeed, making basic computer technology open to all is a matter of global concern.

Another problem with operating systems, is that most of the words used in Japan and elsewhere in Asia are still difficult to handle. The Great Dictionaries of Chinese Characters (kanji), for instance, contain 50,000 words. In all, about 100,000 words are said to be necessary to develop a kanji-based computer.

Current computers can handle about 6,000 kanji under the JIS code. Even under the wider “Unicode” devised in the U.S. and Europe, the number available is less than 20,000. To make matters worse, the Unicode adopts a unification system whereby similar-looking kanji characters used in Japan, China and South Korea are treated as one kanji.

IT is an instrument for greatly increasing the efficiency in the distribution of information. To make that a reality, however, computers must be capable of handling all words used in various regions. In Japan, an operating system called BTRON is designed for a code of more than 1.5 million words. Already a BTRON/Superkanji system that can handle over 100,000 words has been developed.

Discussions on creating a “cybersociety” in Asia can have practical meaning only when such a kanji-based operating system has been developed. This view is gaining ground not only in Japan, but also in China were work is under way to develop an operating system for kanji computers.

At any rate, the personal computer as it exists is a half-way device in the Internet age. In the early years of the 21st century, the Internet will be an integral part of the social infrastructure, with devices like cellphone and other mobile handhelds, and Internet appliances taking the lead.

In Japan, it is likely that all types of household appliances will be hooked to the Internet. If that happens, cellphones can be used as a remote control to perform a variety of at-home functions, such as setting a video recorder for TV programs, activating an air conditioner before returning home and timing the washing machine to notify the end of its operation on the cellphone display.

In the meantime, the computer will become ever smaller and get connected to all sorts of things. PC access to various networks, including the Internet, will be the lifeblood of the information-based society where ubiquitous computers link up every nook and corner of the community. A new social infrastructure will come into being.

In such a computer-dominated society, almost everything will be done electronically. For example, a purchase at a supermarket will be automatically charged to a credit account. A refrigerator will be kept stocked according to a preset menu through an automatic ordering system linked to neighborhood stores. Trash will be sorted out automatically for recycling. The burning of trash that produce toxic gases will send out alarms automatically. A microcomputer as small as a particle of sand will get into the human body to check or treat an affected part.

These things may look like the stuff of science fiction. In the next quarter of a century, however, they will all become reality, more or less, as a result of rapid advances in research and development.

However, technological progress alone is no assurance that humanity will benefit from the Internet revolution. We must first draw up a vision of the kind of society we want to build. More specifically, we must discuss further how best some of the technological possibilities of the 20th century can be harnessed to the needs of 21st-century society.

In the age of ubiquitous computers it is particularly important to draw the line between what should be computerized and what should not be computerized. Such decisions involve, among other things, computer security and legislation against cybercrime. Utmost efforts must be made to secure privacy through strict security measures, including standardization of data on daily social life.

The likelihood is that the Internet will become an essential infrastructure of society, changing all aspects of life, as it develops from a means of information distribution to an all-embracing system of ubiquitous computers.

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