29th > November > 1998 Archive
Analysis: Japan crisis not in beholder's eyes
From the 22nd floor of the Grand Hyatt you have a good view of the city of Tokyo at sunrise. Look down, and you can see a park full of cardboard boxes and their homeless inhabitants being cleared out of sight by security before the financial district wakes up for another day of share trading. Japan’s financial crisis shows little if any sign of improving. Last week, Mitsubishi and Hitachi posted bad six monthly figures, while many of the trust banks, which hold people’s pension funds and savings, warned that they would be in the red, possibly for two years. The week before, Toshiba filed its first losses for 23 years. But on the face of it, there are no problems whatever. The streets of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kyoto all bustle with life and seem to buzz with energy. There are big problems with the economy, but like Tokyo and Kyoto’s homeless, they are not necessarily visible to the naked eye. According to Yasuo Nishiguchi, a senior executive at Kyocera, many of the problems stem from a period four or five years ago when the big banks loaned big money to conglomerates, which then spent the money on schemes both at home and abroad which could never deliver their returns on investment. Will big combines like Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba cope with their poor financial results by laying off staff and cutting other overheads? That is very unlikely but not completely impossible. They are reluctant to do so because it flies in the face of the “jobs for life” philosophy which Japanese big business espouses. That does not bode well for subsidiaries of Japanese business overseas and means it is very likely that we will see job cuts here and in other countries before they happen in the domestic market. Companies including Toshiba and Hitachi attribute many of their problems to the slump in the semiconductor market, particular in memory products. At the same time, they are afflicted by the other economic woes of Japan, while the yen is crucified on the foreign exchange markets. Nor do the combines share the optimism of the Semiconductor Industries Association (SIA) or market research company Dataquest, both of which have predicted a recovery in the market in mid-1999. Kyocera is a manufacturer of ceramic packaging for the semiconductor business and it,too, has been hit by the worldwide oversupply and slump in demand. While the $40 billion company has fared better than Toshiba, which recorded its first loss in 23 years, Kyocera’s interim six month figures showed a 34 per cent drop in profits. Its chief financial officer, Hideki Ishida, said that while his company will be able to recover its position, partly due to a switch in production from ceramic to plastic packaging, the outlook in the semiconductor market is not brilliant. That, he said, is because the Japanese companies expected to see the US and some of the major European economies decline in 1998. Kyocera is attempting to re-engineer its business model and concentrate on its mobile business to weather the storms that it believes are buffeting the world economy. But that, said Ishida, will not be easy. “Our profitability indices are not acceptable because we’re going through a pretty heavy transition,” he said. “Our competition in Japan are feeling the same or even tougher conditions.” At best, he said, Kyocera will be able to reduce its six month’s profit drop of 34 per cent to 20 per cent for the whole year. To help the company turn round, Ishida said it was increasing its production of MR (magneto-resistive) heads for the hard drive business and fibre optic products, as well as shifting its emphasis on home domestic sales of its mobile products to worldwide sales, based on its joint venture with Motorola on the Iridium satellite project. It would also seek to capitalise on its Daini Denden (DDI) telecomms business. Japanese companies generally will cut prices, he said. “This year we see a pretty clear sign of reductions in the market with people downsizing in terms of price,” he said. “The corporations will have a hard time because of the quality of their management. They need to be supported by their customers. Big banks used to form industrial groups and support them. These will dissolve and organisations will have to stand on their own feet. Money should come from investors, especially investors on a global basis.” There are underlying signs, that for Japanese manufacturers, things will get worse, not better. The big combines are supported by thousands of small and medium sized companies which make the tools, design the technology and provide the innovation exploited by the majors. These smaller companies are fast disappearing, unable to survive the rough seas of financial woe. While the Japanese government has attempted to give a fillip to domestic consumption by providing each citizen £250 to spend on electronic goods for Christmas, there is little sign that consumer demand is increasing. In downtown Tokyo, the 500 metre long Akihabara street, with over 400 electronics shops, and which accounts for annual domestic sales of 350 billion yen, is virtually deserted. The street accounts for six per cent of total domestic sales but few are buying. There are only small differentials between the different jobs in large Japanese companies and many rely on bonuses, which can account for as much as a third of overall take-home pay. Those bonuses are only paid if companies are doing well. In Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, things are only a little better than in Tokyo. The homeless are there if you look for them, sleeping in cardboard boxes in doorways. In the morning, there is no sign of them whatever. Whether they are moved on by the police or disappear because of their own shame at their condition is unclear. ®
Lightweight mobiles in vogue in Japanese market
While the Japanese economy is still staggering towards an unsure future, enough new technology is on view in the 500 or so shops in the Akihabara market in downtown Tokyo to demonstrate that innovation is on a surer footing. A sort of a super Tottenham Court Road, each side of the 500 metre street is lined with electronics stores selling every kind of computer gizmo you can imagine, and even some you cannot. DVD is big in Japan and while the prices of these products remain high pre-Christmas, there is every sign that they will drop over the next nine months. There is a mixture of DVD products, from standalone, portable viewers to home appliances. Two personal systems caught our attention because of their futuristic look. When the Sony Walkman arrived in the West, the early adopters had to bear some criticism because people walking in the street with headphones looked kind of weird. DVD “personal theatres” as they are called, look weirder. A pair of futuristic specs are worn over the face, with earpieces hanging off the ends. Wear the spectacles and you have a stereo image of a screen on which you can watch your movies, complete with surround sound. However, while you might see people wearing these specs on the Tube, it’s doubtful you will see them on the street. Unlike the specs in Star Trek: The Next Generation, you can’t see anything but a movie once they’re on. Mobile phones are still big business in Japan. Thirty per cent of the population own a handset and the number is still on the increase. While sales of PHS (Personal Handyset) systems are showing signs of flatness at six million this year, cellular phone sales continue to rise to stand at a figure of 40 million in 1998. There are some neat designs around two. One Kyocera handset is light enough to float in water, while another will allow a rudimentary type of video conferencing. The PS-801, a PHS system, weighs 79 grams and measures 112 x 40 x 18 mm, while a cellular model, the PDC, weighs 69 grams and measures 125 x 40 x 19 mm. But whether we will see these designs ever materialise in Europe is doubtful. According to engineers at the company, our hands are too big for the buttons. The size reductions are due to the use of a lithium battery, more circuit integration, noise reduction, the use of a .7 mm glass multi-layer board and a three rather a five volt system. Power consumption is around 35 per cent less than conventional systems. One PDC handset, the DataScope for Docomo, is described as a data communications terminal on which you can receive and send electronic mail. It weighs around 190 grams and flips open to reveal a keyboard. A shield around the keyboard can be removed and the whole unit can then be inserted into a PCMCIA slot in a notebook PC. Another Kyocera model includes voice recognition software. The company says that its Visual Phone, which is currently only available in monochrome, will appear next year with a full colour display. Kyocera is a partner with Motorola on the Iridium project and claims that its handsets will be introduced on the 1st January next year. While the Iridium project has undergone some delays, we were able to test one of the Kyocera handsets and connect to London from Toba. The company will have two models and a pager available. The single mode Iridium handset will have 18-language support, talk time of aorund 100 minutes, a standby time of 24 hours and weighs 430 grams. The dual mode system will be introduced first with a GSM handset but PDC, CDMA and AMPs handsets will also be made, says Kyocera. The company claims that much more compact handsets will be available within 18 months. These units will be distributed through Kyocera Electronics UK, confirmed Phil Murphy, the general manager of the subsidiary. Back in Akihabara, it was noticeable that PC technology seems to be gaining the upper hand over consoles in the domestic market. Stores were selling a multitude of USB devices, while some of the latest 9.1 Gb drives were on show, with street prices of around £300. While the shops were selling many kinds of mini-disk systems, these were all heavily discounted, suggesting that sales were not as good as the manufacturers had hoped. On the other hand, what crowds there were flocked around miniaturised radios and TVs. One Sony system, weighing only a couple of ounces with batteries, provided stereo FM/AM reception complete with Mega Bass, a built in clock, and 90 minutes auto power off, all for around £30.
Transmeta reveals radical new chip design
Chip design operation Transmeta has finally tipped its hand by filing a patent application for a radical new product which could conceivably run virtually any application faster than the original. If the company is barking up the right tree, it will be able to build a completely new line of processors which will be able to run all existing Intel software, without Transmeta having had to maim its own hardware in order to do so. The patent application doesn't exactly tell you this from the title though, which is: "A memory controller for a microprocessor for detecting a failure of speculation on the physical nature of a component being addressed." Clear? Thought not. The application actually covers a range of 21 interrelated claims, the gist of which seems to be that Transmeta thinks it can design a cheap, fast processor which uses a range of cute techniques to overcome the shortcomings of cloning and emulation. The techniques are applicable to all kinds of target hardware, operating systems and applications, but obviously x86 and Wintel apps are the most important ones that have to be tackled. They allow for the design of a new, original processor (VLIW seems to be the preference, but this doesn't have to be the case) which can run x86 and other applications faster than the original. The point of the "memory controller" aspect of the application is to allow for the detection of the difference between memory and memory-mapped I/O. Emulation systems such as SoftPC have to deal with situations where the hardware used by the application being run is different, or maybe isn't even there. Instructions to I/O also have to be executed in a particular order, so dealing with this, if you don't know which is memory and which memory-mapped I/O, slows down emulators massively. Transmeta intends to combine microprocessor and memory controller into something it refers to as a "morph host." The CPU will include code morphing software and a hardware morph portion. How this works is as follows: The target application gives target instructions to the code morphing software for translation into host instructions, which the morph host can then execute. At the same time, the target OS receives calls from the target application and transfers these to the code morphing software. Says the application: "In a preferred embodiment of the microprocessor the morph host is a VLIW processor designed with a plurality of processing channels." The VLIW processor itself can be much simpler, faster and cheaper than current processors, because it "does not include circuitry to detect issue dependencies or to reorder, optimise and reschedule primitive instructions. This, in turn, allows faster processing at higher clock rates than is possible with either the processors for which the target application programs were originally designed or other processors using emulation programs to run target application programs. However, the processor is not limited to VLIW processors and may function as well with any type of processor such as a Risc processor." So although Transmeta isn't yet telling us much about the particular processor it will be building, it's showing us how that processor could be entirely new, and yet can avoid being marginalised by the x86 compatibility issue. In fact it seems likely that Transmeta's product will be intended to take advantage of Intel's switch over to 64-bit over the next five years. Transmeta needn't just provide the mechanism to run legacy apps better than IA-32 - its techniques could allow it to do this better than IA-64. There are various cute aspects to Transmeta's approach. The code morphing software includes a translator portion "which decodes the instructions of the target application, converts those target instructions to the primitive host instructions capable of execution by the morph host, optimises the operations required by the target instructions, renders and schedules the primitive instructions into VLIW instructions (a translation) for the morph host, and executes the host VLIW instructions." Translations don't necessarily have to be done over and over again, because there's a "translation buffer" (which is currently specced at two megabytes) which stores common translations, and these can be reused. There's also a little bit of interception to deal with self-modifying code, where the original of a stored translation might have changed, rendering the translation inaccurate. There are "target registers" in the hardware that hold the state of the registers of the target processor the app thinks it's running on. So the hardware will be keeping far better track of the state the emulated hardware is supposed to be in, and can emulations faster, because it doesn't have to keep stopping to check what's going on. Transmeta gives an example which would have 64 working registers in the integer unit and 32 in the floating point unit. The company sums the patent application up as being for "a memory controller for a microprocessor including apparatus to both detect a failure of speculation on the nature of the memory being addressed, and apparatus to recover from such failures." It sounds dull, but basically it means the hardware can run a lot faster because it can (usually) tell what it's doing better, and in cases where it finds it can't, then it can get out of the situation without a fatal error. ®
Doomed – we're all doomed…
If you've been relying on the network experts to keep a lid on your Y2K problems, start worrying now. At time of writing Novell's Y2K information site was claiming "Only 397 days left" while IBM's said "398 days to go." And no, at time of writing it was 29th November all over the US and Europe... Doomed...
Siemens Tyneside plant ‘saved’ by Chinese
UK trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson is poised to announce a face-saving deal that will keep Siemens' unviable Tyneside semiconductor fab open, according to reports this weekend. But from the sound of it, the proposed 'rescue' promises to be expensive, and of dubious value in the long term.