the Hidden Realities of Computer Industry in Japan Japanese

The Sigma Project

There was a project known as the Sigma Plan, which was sponsored by MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry). The goal of this project was to make software development more efficent.

"By 1990, there will be a shortage of 600,000 software engineers"

stated a 1984 report by the Committee for Economic Structure, which prompted this project as a countermeasure to the future software crisis. The computer which was designed through this project is the "Sigma Computer (Sigma Workstation)". To be exact, what they built is not a brand new computer but an operating system called Sigma OS, but that's an irrelevant detail to this discussion.

To make the long story short, this government-sponsored project was a terrific failure. The length of the project was over a five-year period which begain in 1985. It was obvious that the project was a failure, but They set up "Sigma System, Inc." anyway at the end of the project, which took over the project. This company used to be located at the building on the Suehiro-cho intersection, at the edge of Akihabara. And it finally disappeared recently. Some government researchers even sent a message around the Internet expressing joy for this disappearance.

Not only was it an economic failure, but it even acted as a deterrent to the advancement of software production and quality. Some of it has to do with the slow economy, but in the end,

"In 1995, we have an overabundance of 600,000 incompetent software engineers"

was the reality, contrary to the 1984 report.

In the computer world, you're not supposed to write about the failure of the Sigma Project. Actually, there were rumors of its doom from the very beginning. But we're talking about a government project that all the Japanese computer manufacturers were in on. It was all right to badmouth Sigma in a bar, but it was considered taboo to even think of saying that in a media such as magazines, where you'll leave evidence.

However, it soon became apparent that not only is the project not showing any useful results, but it's actually hampering the progress of computers. At that point, the story of the failure finally showed up on a magazine.

The magazine was Nikkei Computer. In the Feb. 12, 1990 issue, it featured a 30-page article titled:

"Summing up the the Sigma Plan -- The failure of the five-year long, 25,000,000,000 yen government project."

The magazine is worthy of praise. You also have to consider that this is a magazine that was running a series of popular articles called "The Dysfunctional Computer." The articles wouldn't be complete without the coverage of the most dysfunctional computer.

People raise many reasons for the failure of the Sigma Project. One of them is the underlying assumption that computer technology wouldn't make progress. It's an abosulutely ridiculous assumption, and needless to say, they couldn't get anywhere as development proceeded. The real problem here is that they made no effort to change the direction of the project or terminate it altogether, despite the obvious doom. Once you put the "Goverment Project" crown on, you can't stop it in the middle.

Sigma System, Inc., which took over the project, had office use as its main target, and was raising Japanese language processing as its central business focus. However, it made little, if any, contributions to the Japanese language processing technology.

Computers were just starting to be able to handle Kanji at the time, and there were many talks on the subject. After all, we were Japanese, and we naturally wanted a computer that can handle Kanji and not just English.

I was at such conferences. These conferences were made up of mostly hardware and software manufacuturers, in addition to the universities. There were also people from Sigma. These are the kind of meetings which should have been hosted by the people from Sigma, but I don't recall them taking any sort of a leadership role in these matters. Rather, it appeared that these people were completely ignorant about the subject. They seemed to have been focusing on the round of golf tomorrow, instead of the conference that they were attending.

This was a project which could not have failed any more, but some people believe in it despite the fact, since it was waving the government project flag.

There were two machines, both with the exact same hardware, with Sigma's software on one, and the standard American software on the other. When you swap the software, you swap between the world standard and Sigma standard. There were many large companies who wanted to use the Sigma version because it had the seal of approval from MITI.

In actuality, Sigma's software was nothing more then the world-standard software, without the recent improvements, with Sigma's modifications tacked on. So even at that time, it was a generation behind. And it quickly became fossilized.

One company developed an office software that runs on the Sigma computer. It was incredibly slow by our standards, but it worked, and they were satisfied with it. Once the users start using it, though, they start demanding more. So they tried to make it faster.

As they were researching how they could improve the program, they reached an incredible conclusion. If they ran the same program under a standard machine, it ran about a hundered times faster. There was no need to optimize. Just throw out the Sigma stuff, and change it to run on the industry standard computers. It got faster without doing any additional work. So what's the use for Sigma computer? It's evil just to exist.

The "Government Project" banner is even more effective once you go to the rural areas. Rather, it should be said "Absolute".

At first, all the computer manufacturers participated in the Sigma project, but more and more companies started leaving. But there was one loyal company which started selling it on their own.

The sales guy from this company once came to me and said,

"You can't sell these things in Tokyo, but they sell well in the rural areas."

True, it's a well-known marketing strategy to sell things there that you can no longer sell in Tokyo.

One computer company used the Greek Sigma character for their computer. I don't think they had anything to do with the project. They were just trying to use the name to sell their machines.

But as the project's popularity declined, the word itself started to have a negative connotation attached to it. Customers started running away at the mention of the word. So this company is rumored to have issued an order disallowing the use of the symbol and the word "Sigma" throughout the company.

When the recession was starting to hit, there were many software companies who wanted a Sigma-related job.

One place where someone I know works at was also trying to get a job with the project. This was at the time when the project's failure was already known. He called me and asked me about the subject.

"You still want something to do with that thing after all this?"

I said, whereupon he replied,

"We're trying to get it because it's easier to get support funding from MITI for Sigma-related stuff."

"That's so evil," I thought, but I don't know what eventually happened with that.

It's not uncommon for government projects to fail. Many with a larger budget than the Sigma Project failed. I personally think that you can't do anything about that. You just have to use the failure as the chance to learn something. But it's crazy when they don't try to get out of a doomed plan or change the direction.

I actually got some of information about the Sigma Project over the Internet. It's very useful when you're trying to write a book and you're looking for reference or don't remember all the details yourself. Sometimes a complete stranger will nicely send information to you. There will be problems occasionally, but that's something that comes with a phone or snail mail too.

Copyright 1996, 1999 Hirofumi Fujiwara. Translated by J.K.
No reproduction or republication without written permission.

the Hidden Realities of Computer Industry in Japan Japanese