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|
|Stores, lovely stores|
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? )|
|The Ever Sharp Pencil Company|
Well, enough of this; its Sharp you want to hear about ( isnt it? ). From being a humble maker of propelling pencils, Sharp has become one of Japans foremost electrics companies. At one stage, it was the second biggest seller of personal micros after NEC. Now that surprised you, didnt 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, Sharps 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 MZ80Bs 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 Sharps 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. Sharps 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. Sharps 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, dont we, ( well, I do ), but were eaten with envy of the Beebs graphics and superb Basic, the Spectrums software and the 64s 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. Ones 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! Doesnt 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 640x200 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 computers success can be judged by the amount of third-party software available, then the X1 has certainly established itself. Hudson Software, of Sapporo in Japans chilly north, wrote the X1s 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. Youd 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. Im 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, dont get excited, theres 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.
Sharps 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 PC3500s
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
|Neko san, nan desho ka? ( What‘s new, pussycat? )|
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, Sharps 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.
Its 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!
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