IBM theft case has Japan's computermakers rethinking R&D strategy

The Japanese computer industry is being challenged to rethink its strategy. Its alleged involvement in ''stealing'' secret data from the International Business Machines Corporation puts double emphasis on a strategy shift.

Since the 1960s, the Japanese have been producing computers compatible with IBM computers, but at a lower cost. Its first strategy was to buy an IBM machine on the open market, strip it, and copy it.

''It took us six years to copy the IBM 360 model they marketed in 1964,'' an engineer recalls.

More recently, the Japanese have found an easier method: collecting data from every available source on each new IBM model and its accompanying software.

But industry analysts say IBM has been fighting back. Its latest models, for example, contain a number of features that are making it increasingly difficult for Japanese makers to produce compatible models.

They say this could explain the element of desperation that led Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Electric Corporation to fall into an elaborate FBI trap, which was laid to catch IBM's information thieves.

A leading analyst said: ''The increasing difficulty in unlocking the secrets of the new IBM machines is forcing Japanese companies to review not only their entire IBM-copying practice, but also their global strategy designed to reshape the computer industry under their leadership.''

At present, IBM dominates the world market for computers. Japanese computermakers, eager to chip away at IBM's market hold, are trying to develop a ''united anti-IBM front.''

The top Japanese maker, Fujitsu Ltd., for example, has partnerships with West Germany's Siemens AG and Britain's ICL in the field of large computers.

Of the two companies in the industrial espionage case, Mitsubishi on June 7 signed a ''cooperation agreement'' with Sperry Corporation, a US computer and electronics company. The agreement calls for joint development of information-processing products and services. The other company in the case, Hitachi, has been negotiating a possible partnership with Burroughs Corporation.

Even before the blaze of publicity over the IBM case, government officials say, it was obvious that high technology, especially computers, was the new economic battleground between the two countries.

Sources at Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry say the Reagan administration has switched from demands for conventional market-opening measures to complaints that Japan is ''not playing fair'' in the vital high-technology ''frontier industries.''

This will be discussed at bilateral government-level technology consultations to be held in Hawaii July 7.

Government officials here are embarrassed by the IBM case, coming so close after the agreement for international cooperation in the high-technology sector reached at the Versailles economic summit meeting.

How can there be such cooperation, one official wondered gloomily, if Japanese businessmen are going to be tagged as ''industrial spies''?

Most Japanese are paying great attention to the ''FBI trick'' aspect of the IBM incident. A few commentators think the IBM case is opportune in destroying what they see as a simplistic Japanese tendency to think everything can be solved with money.

Copying IBM may have helped the Japanese computer industry get on its feet, but, they say, it's a demeaning way to do business and merely perpetuates the image of the Japanese as copiers and improvers rather than innovators.

Other commentators see the IBM case as just the first round in the struggle for supremacy in this vital industry.

Six main computermakers and two leading electrical manufacturers, with government backing, for instance, are now involved in a $420 million project to develop a ''fifth generation'' supercomputer by 1990. They hope this move will give Japan world leadership.

The fifth-generation computer would process far greater amounts of data at superhigh speeds and also be able to act more like a human, capable of holding conversations, doing logical thought, and making common-sense judgments.

In a bid to avoid excessive friction with its trading partners, Japan had proposed an exchange of information with the United States and Western Europe as a first step toward possible joint development.

Without mutual trust this could prove difficult.

On a wider plane, commentators here now stress that the IBM case is an indicator that unhealthful emotionalism is being generated in US-Japanese relations.

There is concern over rising anti-Japanese feeling in America amid suggestions that Japan is ''trying to do to the US computer industry what it has already done to automobiles.''

On the other side, Minoru Hirano, a respected columnist of the daily Yomiuri, said the idea of American arbitrariness was beginning to gain ground in Japan.

The US, he complained, was ignoring the fact that its economic policies were dragging down the Japanese yen and seriously affecting the livelihood of the Japanese people.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.