27 November 2006


TRON was designed by Ken Sakamura of the University of Tokyo as a universal operating system standard that would run in real time, like the in-flight systems used on an airline. TRON was never an OS; rather, it was a set of standards, like POSIX, with a strict hierarchy. At the top was the macro-TRON (MTRON), that would act as the set of standards for universal interface across computer systems. Then came CTRON, used in the largest computers, such as supercomputers, mainframes, and telephone switching systems. Then came BTRON, a standard business system architecture, and ITRON, the industrial microcontroller OS. MTRON was evidently never more than an ideal, and no implementations exist. CTRON acquired NTT as a backer, but the architecture was confined to a line of telephone switches.1 A variant of ITRON, micro-ITRON, has become a fairly common standard for niche applications, such as navigation systems.

Ken Sakamura, who by all accounts is a lovable and politically astute man, contrived to start the T-Engine Forum. I was struck by the way the literature appeared to have been written by Borat:

In an emergency, Toyota’s Prius hybrid automobile can supply the Toyota home with electricity. The house gives new meaning to Le Corbusier’s famous exclamation that a dwelling is "a machine for living."

("T-Engine [...] Ready for Prime Time" [PDF] 2005)

This is Sakamura's second (?) career as a tech guru. The article I linked to strikes me as something of a joke: identify a large number of objects that have some abstract feature in common, such as the potential to store data; then create a "standard" that consists of terminology so abstract it can embrace them; and announce your technology is "ubiquitous." Fortify the article with references to vapid platitudes and toss in a nightmarish, but influential, guru from the past—like Le Corbusier or Buckminster Fuller. Capitalize on the lesser-known tendency of Japanese sarariman to join professional associations just because it's possible, and one can drop any number of impressive names.

I was immensely surprised to learn that TRON, a project to create a single comprehensive OS for the whole of the incipient Japanese IT industry in the '80's, which was launched from the nation's most prestigious university, and briefly embraced by NTT, never went anywhere. It was never much more than a Zen joke (like this T-Engine hardware spec; see figure below).

Exactly why did the TRON project go nowhere? Part of it has to do with the basic difference between the concept of "winning market share," which became an obsession with Japanese industry, and "conquering an industry." In the 1980's, when the Japanese industrial model had reached its ultimate development, there were typically 3-6 Japanese firms in each industry. In the great majority of cases, each firm was a member of a large business group known as a keiretsu. For example, Toyota was part of Mitsui, while Nissan was part of Fuyo. In a few cases, such as Honda, a firm might not be affiliated, but this was the exception. Winning market share and ranking was a matter of immense pride among the affiliated firms, although actual extinction was unlikely.

By the 1980's, the standard business model in Japan included assimilation of existing technical standards, like DOS/V, and excelling within that field. The market was sufficiently segmented that, unless unavoidable, Japanese firms avoiding taking a stand of their own on an industrial standard. Rather like the brilliant politician, whose career consists of avoiding difficult positions and anticipating popular ones, the Japanese technology firms seemed to use standards like decals. Executives were alarmed when they discovered embracing a new technology meant slamming the door on another. Because of this, TRON withered on the vine. It was distinguished by the amazing abilities of its godfather, Prof. Sakamura, to look like a decisive guru.

1 My link to the CTRON page is basically Ken Sakamura's plug for the concept. The page is now almost 10 years old, which is about the point when TRON largely vanished as a developmental objective. He mentions several firms, such as Tandem, developing a fault-tolerant devices and switching systems based on this standard, then sums up that it "is a standard" in Japan. Those firms were contractors for NTT. A few enthusiasts, unfamiliar with IT terminology and claims, or prone to hyperbole, have gone so far as to insist it's "the most popular operating system in the world"(ITRON is not an OS). Almost none of the information in the linked article is true or, for that matter, logically coherent enough to be true OR false.

Keiretsu: The keiretsu (business group) model is distinct from the business group found everywhere else in the world in that it has the external linkage (crossholding of shares) and standard convoy structure, with a trading house, commercial bank, and investment bank at its core. At its culmination of development, the Japanese economy was dominated by six keiretsu, each with its own commercial bank. A seventh bank, the Industrial Bank of Japan, was the battle cruiser in the financial convoy system. The entire system was restructured out of existence in the late '90's, as the seven banks were merged into three and the non-financial firms developed a somewhat more conventional relationship.

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21 November 2006

Graphical User Interface

A graphical user interface (GUI) is one in which the user has basic commands displayed graphically, and inputs choices using a pointing device like a mouse. The GUI was mainly pioneered with the Apple Macintosh in 1984, although the Mac OS was certainly not the first GUI ever developed.

Originally, the purpose of the GUI was to make it easy for non-specialists to use computers, and in this respect I would have to say it was quite successful. The basic method was to use visual analogies to creating a directory (represented as a manila file folder), opening a file (represented as a dogeared sheet of paper), or deleting a file (by putting in a trashcan). It was now possible to not only have two files open at the same time, but also visible (as overlapping "windows") .

Screencapture of eComStation (the contemporary version of IBM OS2)

However, the functionality also expanded. It was now a lot easier to move among multiple applications and documents.

Screencapture of Paint.Net (click for larger image)

The title bar of this blog was created using the application shown above, and I shudder to imagine how I would have done it without the ability to, for example, select colors using a mouse, or eyeball the various possible gradations of transparency between the layers being blended. Naturally, other forms of data processing can be made more efficient using graphical analogues—not merely easier to learn how to do.

A final twist to this: GUI application environments like the familiar MS Windows are often used to display command line environments (CLI). In some cases, users of operating systems like Unix will have different shells open in X Windows (a GUI layer available for Unix). Shells, of course, are used for typing commands.
SPECIMENS: For illustrating this concept, I mention a few examples:
  • Xerox Alto (pioneer; developed in 1973)
  • Mac OS (introduced in '84; integral to operating system)
  • IBM & MS OS/2 (conceived as GUI+OS successor to DOS)
  • MS Windows (introduced in 1985 as a GUI add-on to DOS)
  • Amiga OS (a GUI/OS used by the Commodore Amiga)
  • X Windows (a standard Unix GUI layer)
  • NextStep (a GUI/OS used by NeXT)
  • DecWindows (a GUI layer [seldom] used for OpenVMS)
  • BeOS (a GUI/OS used by BeBox)
  • Solaris (a GUI layer for Sun Microsystems)
  • IRIX (a GUI/OS used by Silicon Graphics)
  • GNOME (a GUI layer for GNU & Unix)
This list is not at all complete; I just couldn't be bothered to mention NewWave, DESQview, Deskmate, or Lisa.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: I really appreciated Nathan Lineback's site devoted to GUI's. It appears we agree on many things...

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20 November 2006

Command Line Interface

Screen capture of DOS DIR /?

A command line interface (CLI) is a type of user interface in which the user types in commands at a prompt. Prior to 1984, virtually all computers used a CLI.

The illustration above is of a DOS "window" available in all installations of Windows. I entered a command dir, accompanied by the /? switch; dir lists the contents of the directory (in this case, my root drive C:\), while the switch modifies the command so that it supplies detailed instructions on how to use the command, rather than actually execute it.

Below is an illustration (stolen, I'm sorry to admit) of a session of WordStar for DOS. WordStar was actually very popular until it was superseded by WordPerfect for DOS. Both enjoyed great loyalty among users, but unfortunately, were unable to compete with MS Word for the MS Windows environment. WordStar assisted users by constantly displaying the command "cheat sheet" at the top of the screen; by the time WordPerfect came along, arrow keys, function keys, and command keys were commonplace; but it too included an always-visible cheat sheet.

Screen capture of WordStar for DOS

Unix shells are well-known examples of CLI's. In contrast to the MS Windows computing milieu, Unix users tend to use shells alongside their system's particular GUI.

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03 November 2006

Some Computing Standards Organizations

This is a list that is updated whenever I feel the need to add something.

3GPPW O: 3rd-Generation Partnership Project; program to develop follow-on to GSM members. Members include ETSI, TTC/ARIB, and CT1..

ANSIW O: American National Standards Institute. Accredits standards that are developed by representatives of standards developing organizations, government agencies, firms, et al. ANSI does not actually develop standards of its own.

ARIBW O: Association of Radio Industries and Businesses (of Japan); trade association. Designated as manager of Japanese radio spectrum; 3GPP partner.

ATISW O: Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions. Includes several defunct organizations (O) such as: ANSI-accredited Committee T1 (CT1) established in February 1984 at the divestiture of AT&T to develop technical standards for interoperability of telecommunications networks (3GPP partner).

CERNW O: European Organization for Nuclear Research (Geneva Canton, CH−border with France). The acronym CERN originally stood, in French, for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, which was a provisional council for setting up the laboratory. It is the owner-manager of several of the largest scientific instruments in the world. Here, Tim Berners-Lee developed a universal markup system known as HTML, which was the key technical development required for the creation of the World Wide Web.

EIAW O: Electronic Industries Alliance; a US trade association closely related to the TIA. The TIA seems to be much more heavily involved in the development of industry standards (partial listing), while the EIA is almost entirely devoted to the development of political policy. Indeed, almost all pages of the EIA website are devoted to policy issues and the industry position on them.

EMVcoW O: industry association for the development and management of financial smart cards. "EMV" stands for Europay, MasterCard, and Visa, the original members of the EMV consortium. The EMV standard currently covers contact and RFID smart cards.

ETSIW O: European Telecommunications Standards Institute; EU-based trade association. Notably developed GSM and TETRA as well as many others (list). ETSI is the recognized European Union regional standards body dealing with telecommunications, broadcasting and other electronic communications networks and services (O).

IECW O:International Electrotechnical Commission; closely aligned with the IEEE and the ISO. The IEC charter embraces all electrotechnologies including energy production and distribution, electronics, magnetics and electromagnetics, electroacoustics, multimedia and telecommunication, as well as associated general disciplines such as terminology and symbols, electromagnetic compatibility, measurement and performance, dependability, design and development, safety and the environment. List of IEC standards

IEEEW O: Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers; responsible for maintaining a large number of technical standards and formats (list). IEEE's standards permit firms all over the world to supply any market in any industry with useful electrical and electronic subcomponents. IEEE site map: the IEEE has hundreds of groups and subgroups associated with the formation of electonics standards.

ISOW O: International Organization for Standardization ("ISO" derived from Greek ἴσος, for "equal"). Created in 1947; sets many technical and commercial standard (list); these are highly varied, and include ISO 7 (pipe thread specs), ISO 233 (transliteration of Arabic into Roman characters), ISO 1000 (the complete and latest specs of the Metric System), and ISO 9001 (quality management certification).

ITUW O: United Nations agency for information and communication technologies. Promulgates and accredits standards internationally. Divisions included ITU-R (radio communications), ITU-S (stanardization), and ITU-D (development of communications technologies). Based in Geneva, Switzerland.

NCSAW O: National Center for Supercomputing Applications (Urbana Illinois). The NCSA was originally created in 1985 with money from the National Science FoundationW O. The NCSA also received financial support from the state government of Illinois and the University of Illinois. One of its major innovations was the development of the Mosaic web browser in 1993; Mosaic was extremely influential on the design of subsequent browsers, such as Netscape Navigator and MS Internet Explorer. It continues to support research in cybertechnologies, astronomy, biology and medicine, chemistry ("nanoscience"), and engineering.

NISTW O: National Institute of Standards and Technology; Founded in 1901, NIST is a non-regulatory federal agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. NIST's mission is to promote innovation and US industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology.

Object Management Group W O: manages industry standards for programming objects.

Open GroupW O:created when X/OpenW merged with the Open Software FoundationW (OSF) in 1996. The goal of this was to end the rivalry among standards of Unix, thereby making it possible to develop Unix applications that could run on any future installation of Unix. The Open Group inherited management of the Unix name.

PC/SC WorkgroupW O: Personal Computer/Smart Card Workgroup; industry association for the development and management of smart cards. PC/SC standards (list) are used to integrate smart cards with the broader computing environment.

TIAW O: Telecommunications Industrial Association; US trade association that lobbies for regulations favorable to telecommunications. It maintains trade standards such as CDMA (cdma2000). List of committees

TTCW O: Telecommunications Technology Committee (of Japan); contributes to standardization in the field of telecommunications by establishing protocols and standards for networks and terminal equipment, etc. Non-governmental organization (NGO); 3GPP partner.

W3CW O: World Wide Web Consortium; founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of HTML. Tim Berners-Lee is usually credited with the invention of the World Wide Web (see CERN). Unlike CERN, whose membership is confined to European nations, the W3C is global. It seeks to establish vendor-neutral standards for web applications, including XML, HTML, CSS, and others (partial list).

Wi-Fi AllianceW O: Industrial alliance that promotes the use of the IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standard (or Wi-Fi). The Wi-Fi Alliance is not the same as the IEEE 802.11 working group. The Wi-Fi Alliance exists to ensure interoperability among Wi-Fi products.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING: Wikipedia post on each item indicated with a superscript W; the organization's website is indicated as O.

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02 November 2006

Some Computing Standards

This is a list that is updated whenever I feel the need to add something.

802.11W S O: the IEEE standard for all wireless local area networks (WLANs); also known as Wi-Fi . All the 802.11 specifications use the Ethernet protocol and Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Avoidance (CSMA/CA) for path sharing.

CDMAW S: Code Division Multiple Access; mobile phone technology for multiplexing, from which several cellular protocols have evolved. Developed by Qualcomm (a PCS) and today managed by the TIA. CDMA-based standards are used mainly in North America and Asia; they compete with GSM (see "CDMA and GSM: What's the difference?" SearchTelecom.org).

CGIW: Common Gateway Interface; standard of API's for browser-access, server-resident computer applications. Standard is maintained by the NSCA.

CSSW: Cascading Style Sheets; an international standard for specifying tags within the context of a domain-specific markup language. Maintained by the W3C.

GSMW S: originally from Groupe Spécial Mobile, but now Global System for Mobile [communications]; an international standard for mobile phones (RNL&A) that competes with various forms of CDMA. GSM is based on TDMA multiplexing. Maintained by the ETSI. The standard is virtually mandatory in EU member states (see "CDMA and GSM: What's the difference?" SearchTelecom.org).

OSI ModelW: developed by ISO for standardized network architecture. Defines seven layers of network architecture: media(1-physical, 2-data link, 3-network, 4-transport) and host(5-session, 6-presentation, 7-application). Each of these seven layers describes different technical components of a digitally networked system. There are several different suites, or sets of mutually-compatible families of standards. For example, there is UMTS, a mobile telephone standard; SS7 (public switched telephone networks); and TCP/IP (the Internet protocol). Taking the latter as a familiar example: TCP/IP has a set of at least 9 internationally-recognized standards for physical transmission of data, 2 standards for the data link layer, and so on.

In the OSI Model, not all "suites" or modes of networked communication actually occupy all seven layers; for example, TCP/IP doesn't specify a session or presentation layer. See main article.

POSIXW: a body of standards developed by the IEEE for universal portability of Unix operating systems. POSIX was first published in 1988 as IEEE Std 1003.1-1988, and intended to establish the minimal requirements of what was, and was not, Unix. However, the POSIX standards are also used by OpenVMSW, a once-proprietary operating system originally developed for DEC VAXW minicomputers.

TETRAW O: terrestrial trunk radio; a mobile communications standard developed by ETSI and now maintained by its own organization. TETRA is targeted primarily at the mobile radio needs of public safety groups (such as police and fire departments), utility companies, and other enterprises that provide voice and data communications services [Whatis].

UMTSW S: Universal Mobile Telecommunications System; 3rd generation broadband developed to supersede GSM. Once UMTS is fully available, computer and phone users can be constantly attached to the Internet wherever they travel and, as they roam, will have the same set of capabilities. Developed and maintained by 3GPP, which includes ETSI, TTC/ARIB, and CT1 (ATIS).

XMLW: extensible markup language; an international standard for specifying domain-specific markup languages. Maintained by the W3C.

XSLW: extensible stylesheet language; an international standard for defining the meaning of XML tags; unlike CSS, designed specifically for XML. Maintained by the W3C.

Sources & Additional Reading: Wikipedia post on each item indicated with a superscript W; SearchTelecom.org entry indicated with a superscript S; organization website indicated with a superscript O.

Cisco Systems, "Internetworking Basics"

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