Sharp in Japan

SHARP in Japan

Written by Martin Winbow / SUC/UK
Source: SUC-magazine June 1986, Volume 5 Number 3, pp. 6 – 10

 

Sharp Users Club – General Section – Sharp in Japan
Did you hear any of those rumours about the maker of your micro being one of the biggest electronics companies in Japan? Ever wonder why there are so many Sharp addicts there, churning out endless versions of “Space Pilot“ and “Donkey Scramble“, while we in Britain are up to our keyboards in Basic modifiers? Well, let me take you on a little trip. I have owned an MZ80B for some time ( before that a ‘K‘ ), but also I go to Japan a couple of times a year. While there, I use some of my free time to hunt round the computer stores.

 

Stores, lovely stores

You may well have heard of Japanese computer stores. Ours are junk shops by comparison. Imagine a shop the size of a small Boots, two to four floors high, with wide entrances, escalators, piped music and polite efficient sales staff. No crawling in furtively to finger the Macintosh here, oh no. It‘s the only place I can actually touch the expensive kit. It used to be possible to spend hours ‘playing‘ with £4000+ outfits, but the fingers of the uninitiated have probably trashed so many master disks that the “*’*§#**” notices have appeared and the keyboards wear custom-made perspex protectors. The staff still don‘t accost me, but then they probably wouldn‘t be so impolite to a foreigner. Most of the larger stores simply set aside an area of the ground floor for people to beat hell out of the home computers, mostly MSX. The smaller shops are often little treasure chests, where you can take a dish and select quantities of electronic components like in a supermarket and the non-English speaking assistants will do their best to understand your phrase book Japanese. Mine, however, doesn‘t stretch to RS232’s or Space Shuttle launch programs. Still, they do make use of a lot of English names, so it isn‘t too hard.

The bigger Japanese cities have an electronics ‘district‘ ( Akihabara in Tokyo and Nipponbashi in Osaka, for example ). Apart from computers, you would find almost anything electrical or electronic ( well, maybe not THAT! ) tucked away in the corners of a pretty large neighbourhood. Nipponbashi is a half-mile section of street, with parallel side streets, where you would find me wandering wide-eyed ( and well fatigued by the end of the day! ). There certainly is a lot to see.

( A Sanyo Fridge? )

Practically every major Japanese electrics company you see in Britain also makes a computer. A couple years ago, all of them did but the computer fever has abated a little and either bankruptcy has forced out the smaller ones or they have moved to Taiwan to make Apple clones. There are National, Hitachi, Sanyo, Mitsubishi, Yamaha, JVC and Sony among others. Sony, which got the world to wear headphones and roller skates, has tried very hard to sell various types of ‘Hit-Bit‘. If you think it‘s a daft name, then what do you expect from a nation that sells powdered cream called ‘Creap‘ and ‘Pocari Sweat‘, a fizzy drink? Japan also gave us MSX, but Sharp, either aware of a non-starter or missing the boat, kept well clear of that. But NEC is the IBM of Japan, flogging a wider range of computers than we shall ever see. One of their range is a Lisa-like machine with mouse, 720 x 512 colour graphics ( 16 from 512 colours ), in fact the whole WIMP à la Macintosh and maybe a bit faster. IBM, incidentally, tried to sell the PC but I glimpsed it only a few times, almost completely ignored. Now they have the JX range, made by Matsushita, which is a good example of the “me-too“ marketing. It‘s one market they won‘t dominate.

The Ever Sharp Pencil Company

Well, enough of this; it‘s Sharp you want to hear about ( isn‘t it? ). From being a humble maker of propelling pencils, Sharp has become one of Japan‘s foremost electrics companies. At one stage, it was the second biggest seller of personal micros after NEC. Now that surprised you, didn‘t it! Yes, that secretive giant we love ( and hate? ) actually sells large numbers of its micros in Japan. Oh yes, the MZ80K was a hit here ( it was cheaper and more reliable than the comPETition ), but since those heady days, Sharp‘s computers have been largely ignored by all save us enthusiasts. Even my beloved ‘B‘ was unloved by almost everyone else. For a time, it was different over there, whilst both ‘B‘ and ‘A‘ sold well. Still, good things never last. Seeing MZ80B‘s sold off at knock-down prices, I despaired that Sharp Japan had turned to microwave ovens, too. You see, Sharp had chosen caution over innovation and produced the MZ2000 to succeed the ‘B‘. It was a sort of ‘B‘ with an ‘A‘ keyboard ( and higher res. graphics, necessary to display Japanese characters ). Then, about two years ago, I spotted a new beast, the X1, still unseen in this country. There they stood, resplendent in their red, white and silver options. Decorator computers was a novel idea, but under the hood they were quite new.

But, first, same background. The MZ80K probably evolved from Sharp‘s calculator and cash register expertise. Originally, it was available in kit form too. As the hobby grew in Japan, variations appeared: MZ80K2, MZ80K2/E and the MZ80C. These never left Japan and the ‘C‘ which had a typewriter keyboard, was perhaps thought unsuitable for the U. K. market then ( we were idolizing the ZX81, remember? ). Laurel-resting ensued. Then the ‘Computer Division‘ cloned the MZ1200 ( MZ80A ) from the 80K, but it mutated with a proper keyboard. Perhaps thinking it a genetic abnormality. Sharp‘s deluxe job, the ‘B‘, had a calculator gene grafted into its DNA ( darned nice architecture?? ). Meanwhile, back at HQ, a ‘Business Products‘ division was pushing the PC3201, a good machine saddled with a Basic in ROM that had a relaxed approach to computation. More recently, the bodywork was made sleeker, another ‘engine‘ added, renamed PC3541, slightly higher revs. Sharp‘s solar-powered labs, in Nara, however, were about to release the MZ700 to astound the world. Oh dear.

We Sharp owners just love the reliability of our machines, don‘t we, ( well, I do ), but we‘re eaten with envy of the Beeb‘s graphics and superb Basic, the Spectrum‘s software and the 64‘s keyboard. Wilderness has been good for us, eh? The ‘Television Division‘ decided not and the X1 was their solution. This range has now expanded to 8 different versions over the last two years: among them X1C, X1D, X1F and lately an X1 Turbo ( a GTI next? ). It is said to have a production run of 10,000 units plus per month and is the feature of some pretty expensive advertising and promotion. So what’s so special? In this era of Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, not a lot, but two years ago it was almost revolutionary. The Japanese love any new technology; the country is stacked with it, especially TV and video. One‘s status in society almost relies an possession of the latest camcorder. The X1 series‘ main feature is the built-in ability to mix video/TV and computer output. Not only could you show ‘Our holiday in Greece‘ with subtitles for Granny, but the hi-res. graphics could display same very fancy tricks. If so inclined, you could watch “News at 5.00 a.m.“ while debugging the ultimate space game. The internal clock/calendar would switch on ( or off ) ‘Crossroads‘ every day! Doesn‘t sound like a Sharp? There are more serious applications; of course; like sales demos, education, amateur TV etc.

These clever micros are well equipped. Among the basic features are full colour 640×200 graphics ( up to 96K RAM ), with separate text and attribute RAM. Main program memory is 64K and another 6K is reserved for user-defined characters. Graphics shapes and text have priority planes and physical colours are selectable from a logical palette. There are 4 character and 8 screen sizes ( 80/40 columns, 25/20/12/10 lines ) and up to 4 graphics pages in eight colours, 12 in one colour. The models range from software-controlled cassette to twin 640K disks ( 5.5 or 3 inch ), with options for 8 inch disks or a 10mB hard disk, all supported by the standard Hu-Basic. The higher modem have an RS232 interface and mouse input. Though the main CPU is a mere Z80A, display is handled by a 6845 video chip, sound from an AY 3-8910 and the keyboard scanned by an 80C49. Another 80C49 deals entirely with the video/TV input, including channel selection. All in all, the X1 whistles and flashes like a noisy toy robot, but with considerable style and speed. But the integration of computer and video was an innovation that is only now being imitated.

If a computer‘s success can be judged by the amount of third-party software available, then the X1 has certainly established itself. Hudson Software, of Sapporo in Japan‘s chilly north, wrote the X1‘s Basic, an extended version of the one Club members know. Also, Hudson sell spreadsheet, database and word processor application programs. Just about everyone else makes X1 versions of programs and there is plenty of choice. Sharp itself also supplies CP/M, as well as Fortran, Cobol, Lisp, C, Forth and Prolog packages. Somehow, they have done a Japanese language version of Multiplan, too. You‘d have no lack of games‚ either, but the top models would need the optional data recorder. The Sharp X1 broadly covers the entire home computer through to small business computer market. Prices, without colour monitor, range from roughly £290 for the cassette model to £930 for the twin disk model. Too high for us maybe, but it seems discounts are widely available and educational bodies always get a ‘special‘ price. I‘m left rather to wonder, given the minuteness of Japanese homes, where on earth do they put all this gear? Sharp in Japan even flogs the smart furniture to put it all on. No hacking into Prestel from the bedroom floor! Still, don‘t get excited, there‘s no danger of the X1 being brought to Britain.

Nor, in fact, much chance of our seeing the 320K RAM board, the ROM Basic, or any of the 4 printers and A4 colour plotter for the X1 range. Sharp‘s only home micro in the MZ1500, with no hi-res. ( PCG only ) and 2-channel sound. Storage is on ‘Quick-Disk‘, which looks vulnerable to jammy fingers and unlikely to be popular with anyone ( sorry if you have just invested all your pocket money in one ). The MZ800 seems not to exist in Japan, at least not in the form we have; one wonders just where it came from. As matter of interest, on the business side things are rather more orderly. The ‘Computer Division‘ appears to run this now, but with a different approach. The PC3500‘s have really disappeared altogether and the Z80A technology has had to give way to 16 bits in the PC6500 ( PC5500 in the UK ). Since we are enthusiasts the PC series is beyond the scope of this little tour. Suffice to say that it is a credible attempt at building a very usable business computer. The graphics display is courtesy of a custom LSI, which in quite fascinating to watch, but only the Japanese could possibly explain the need for a sound chip. It was they who made those awful phones that play ‘Auld Lang Syne‘ to you on hold. At pedestrian crossings the green man is accompanied by a tinny tuneless cacophony; even your hotel lift might play you a tune ( in the near future, it might be too busy trying to make verbal contact with you ). Still; Sharp seems to have just discovered colour graphics and polyphonic sound processors, so we had better not discourage them. Breathtaking innovation is no strong point of theirs ( although engineering undoubtedly is ) and everything produced so far, for business or domestic markets, has relied on existing technology.

Neko san, nan desho ka? ( What‘s new, pussycat? )

Sharp‘s latest offering in Japan, released on the first of October 1985, is the MZ2500, the ‘Super MZ‘. This is a definite evolution from the MZ80B and MZ2000, but with knobs on. It‘s still an 8 bit computer, but with a zippy 6 mHz Z80B at heart. It shares similar graphics to the X1 series, but controlled by a custom LSI, like the PC6500, which makes for very fast displays, up to 640×400 and 4 from 16 colours ( 15 from 4096 with the optional palette card ). Also, there is wide choice of programmable character sizes shapes and colours. It seems to support windows, which are catered for by Basic. Another custom chip gives 8 octave, 3 or 6 channel sound, which can be routed into or out of the built-in ‘data recorder‘. This is a more sophisticated version than the MZ80B-cassette. As well as program data, normal sound can be output via the internal speaker, like a cassette deck, with the tape under software control. Even the optional ‘voice board‘ output can be directed to the recorder. Sharp have finally given in and included 3.5 inch 640K disk drives, one or two, though 5.25 inch drives are optional. One reason for this may be that the MZ2500 is file and program compatible with its predecessors. On a small flip-out panel on the front of the machine is a switch for MZ80B / MZ2000 modes as well as reset and IPL buttons. Main memory is 128 to 256K bank-switched RAM; graphics RAM is 64 to 128K, with a separate 14K for programmable characters. There is also 32K of ‘system‘ ROM and another 256K containing the specialized Japanese character set. The machine is positively adorned with plugs and connectors of every shape and size. Included with the standard outfit are: an extension floppy disk outlet; an RS232C, with sockets for 9 and 25 pin plugs; parallel printer port; mouse socket; keyboard socket; voice and audio sockets, and twin joystick ports. Thinking you might need more, Sharp‘s designers have allowed room for a 2 card I/O unit, too. It‘s no surprise that the machine has a cooling fan, though I‘m amazed how they got it all in. Oh yes, there’s a calendar/clock as well.

Basic comes supplied, in fact there are two versions, S-25 and M-25. The first is, I think, to retain compatibility with earlier Basics on the MZ80B / MZ2000 range; the other is rather more Microsoft and Hudson-like. Both have a large range of commands and statements, especially for graphics, but what do you make of ‘MKDIR‘ or ‘RMDIR‘, which are MS-DOS/Unix commands for hierarchical directories? Looks like a lot of fun, but I wonder how much memory is left free for programs? My experience of ‘big‘ Basics is few bytes ‘free‘. Sharp has licensed CP/M 80 for the Super MZ which includes Wordmaster, the screen editor from Micropro. This must mean that most CP/M applications would be available ( Multiplan already is ).

But the reason why this computer is different from the others is the ‘Modem Phone’. For this is a personal computer specially designed with telecommunication in mind. The modem phone is a modern style telephone that connects directly to the MZ2500. With appropriate software, it will be possible to dial into networks and databases all over Japan and through satellites to the rest of the world. At least that is what the glossy brochures imply, with their pretty diagrams and copious Japanese squiggles, though such things are different in practice. However, Sharp, like many Japanese companies, have shown what can be done with existing technology.

For once, though, Sharp have not priced this too high. The single disk model retails for £560 and the twin disk version is £660, excluding a monitor. However, they make such a wide variety of monitors that it takes 2 pages of a magazine to show them. Failing that, Sharp‘s own RF converter will do for the living room telly. If you get the impression that this is a complete product range, you would be right. This is very much the Japanese way of marketing: no product, however duff, is sold without it being part of a total concept. Sharp, for example, used the motto ‘New Life Media‘ for the X1, whatever that meant. Others have equally silly slogans; Fujitsu employs a grinning gangster-type, complete with dark glasses and snappy clothes. I still can’t figure out what he has to do with computers, but the chap seems famous enough over there.

This little tour can be of passing interest only, since Japan is still essentially a closed market, little influenced by or even interested in the outside. They suffer from a crucial disadvantage: their language. It‘s essential vagueness is incompatible with the precise terms required by computing. Their computers must labour against the need to display all their text in hi-res graphics. But, without doubt they possess superb engineering skills. Sadly, we Sharp enthusiasts in Britain are left to fend largely for ourselves. How I would have loved that 16 bit kit for my MZ80B!