Random Access Online: Recipe For Success? Follow The Geeks

The appointment is in a shiny skyscraper near the Shibuya train station, but it turns out that none of the three people I'm meeting are formally involved with the company that leased the offices in this tony facility. You could probably have figured this out by looking at them: in a space of Kubrickian immaculateness, Yuichi Kawasaki, Umeda Hidekazu and Toshimatsu Kawano are duded out in hacker grunge: T shirts and sneaks.

And their version-creating an open, mobile peer-to-peer standard that will transform cell-phone communications into an amazing combination of Internet Relay Chat and Napster-puts them in an edgier zone than the carpeted conference room where the ubiquitous officeperson serves us tea. Clearly they are soul brethren of the wild-eyed wireheads who prowl the aisles of Fry's in Silicon Valley and wind up coming up with the ideas that drive Sand Hill Road venture capitalists giddy with glee.

I've been hearing endlessly about how the educational system of Japan transforms imaginative whelps into obedient worker bees, but these guys are proof that exceptional people-whether in Idaho or Ueno-can sometimes emerge from stultifying grammar-school experiences with their energies intact. They're talking about schemes where mobile-phone users can communicate in bucket-brigade fashion, not only to move music files but to find like-minded souls in a given physical area, send emergency messages, and other exotic applications. None of it relies on the proprietary DoCoMo system-and as open-source software, the scheme is meant to spread globally, for free-and thus it is implicitly subversive to Japan Inc.'s official view of how the world will adopt the Tokyo way of mobile communications.

What's more, these guys see their quest as a shot in the dark, and with the courage of youth-and the swashbuckle from consuming probably too much science fiction-they show none of the inbred timidity that supposedly characterizes their countrymen. "Our activity is high risk, but even if we fail we have nothing to lose," says Kawano. "Failing is a treasure, I think," adds Kawasaki.

After spending weeks grappling with The Issue in Japan's information technology scene, this meeting comes as a breath of fresh air. Frankly, I am a bit tired of The Issue, which is of course the question of whether Japan, having suffered the economic and psychic consequences of pretty much missing the Internet boom, can recapture the winner's-circle mentality it had in the good old 1980s, and thus become the world leader in software and networking. The Issue pops up in every interview, is the subtext of every major product announcement, and pretty much serves as the raison d' etre of the ambitious e-Japan initiative, which promises to make Japan the world's dominant high-tech power. The idea seems to be that by the time the average American figures out how to send e-mail by mobile phone, the return message will be "Eat our dust"-in katakana.

But after a while, analyzing the reasons for Japan's predicament (language barriers, lack of venture capital and so on) gets old. As does handicapping whether or not a triumphant return to the top will simply require some governmental and cultural tinkering, or-as one of Japan's smartest young entrepreneurs told me-"a complete collapse of the economy, which is necessary so we can start from scratch." The Issue itself is part of the problem, because it betrays a basic misunderstanding of the digital revolution. This amazing phenomenon doesn't care about countries but innovations. The Internet isn't the Olympics, and our embrace of high tech is ultimately a global effort, with consequences for all of humanity.

I guess it's understandable why nationalism so thoroughly permeates the digital consciousness here, particularly since Japan in general sees itself as an entity surrounded by everyone else. Surely this attitude applies to its place in the high-tech community. There is a deep-seated feeling here that during the Internet age, the digital deck has been stacked against Japan. People are still bitter, for instance, about the international standards boards, who nixed Japan's high-definition television standard more than a decade ago-even though it's long been clear that adopting that analog standard as the age of digital TV dawned would have been an incredible blunder. The perception here is that such decisions have been made with an eye toward fortifying countries that stand tall in the current power structure-and that's one reason why Japan has fallen behind on the Net.

But the rest of the world doesn't see things that way-certainly not techies in the United States. True, it was the U.S. government that first funded the Internet, but the bureaucrats had no idea whatsoever what would come of this defense-oriented experiment. It was America's wizards who made the difference, not consciously promoting the national interest but simply regarding the Net as their playground. They understood that digital networking could amplify the power of plain old people, and saw the possibilities to exploit that power. The Marc Andreessens and Shawn Fannings, whose ideas transformed the Net, weren't driven less by ideas of national glory or even riches (at first), but a quest to produce the coolest stuff they could imagine.

People like that wind up creating new industries. That's why it was encouraging to hear the Japanese P2P guys talk about their vision. "We're in it for fun," says Kawano, "We can change the world!" I think they have a chance of doing just that-if not by technology, simply by their role model.

Random Access Online: Recipe For Success? Follow The Geeks | News