Tokyo, alarmed by the global dominance of Google and other foreign internet services, is spearheading a project to try to seize the lead in new search technologies for electronic devices.
The push has been sparked by concerns in Japan that the country’s pre-eminence in consumer electronics has faded and value in the technology industry is moving away from hardware.
As South Korean and Taiwanese electronics companies churn out products nearly identical to those of the Japanese majors, there are fears in Tokyo that the country’s manufacturers are falling behind in innovation.
“The question is how Japanese companies like Sharp and Matsushita can be encouraged to provide services. They clearly have the know-how to build things,” says Toshihide Yahiro, director of the information service industry division at the ministry of trade. “The key to Japan’s competitiveness has been our core technology but we need to create a new value-added service that is personalised.”
The shift of focus away from hardware echoes attempts by some of the biggest personal technology companies to become stronger in software and services. In one of the most prominent examples, Nokia last week outlined plans for an online music store and other services.
Tokyo hopes to use Japan’s strength in developing devices, such as mobile phones and car navigation systems, to create proprietary search and information retrieval functions. But some question whether a state-led project is capable of overhauling Google.
The Japanese project is comprised of 10 partnerships, each tasked with a specific next-generation search function. For example, the government has matched NTT Data with Toyota InfoTechnology Center and Toyota Mapmaster to create an interactive, personalised car navigation system. Other partnerships involve NEC, Hitachi and Sony Computer Science Laboratories. The ministry of trade has allocated Y14bn-Y15bn (€89m-€95m) to the project.
“Seventy per cent of car navigation systems are made in Japan. There is scope for more personalization,” says Mr Yahiro. “There is a need for car navigation systems that are capable of searching for which bathrooms are equipped with baby-changing stations and other necessities.”
Some blame Japan’s copyright laws for holding back the development of web services. Services such as Google hold copies of other companies’ web pages on their servers. Because Japanese law forbids the duplication of copyrighted works without the rights holders’ permission, Yahoo Japan, Google Japan and other search engines offered in Japan operate from US-based servers.
The specific focus on search reflects the prominence that this service has achieved since the rise of Google, while also reflecting broader international concerns about US dominance of an important information business.
France and Germany launched a plan of their own to seed development of a “next generation” European search engine nearly two years ago, though Germany pulled out of the plan.
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