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(No.32) Technical Progress and Human Adaptability - Who defines the market needs?

Since the invention of writing, human society has advanced by the propagation and exchange of knowledge. As information is transferred mainly in writing, it is important for writers to write sentences that are easy to read. For a long time, sentence writing was dependent on well trained experts. It was only in the 19th century that ordinary people were able to write sentences with beautiful print fonts using the newly invented typewriter. However, when using a typewriter it is easy to misspell by hitting a wrong key. The human operator is responsible for correct and high speed typing skills, which are only achieved by an expert.

When I joined Ricoh in 1973, this company had a tradition of developing new things. Although the company faced financial difficulty because of the Oil Shock, it still provided enough supportive human resources for researchers and engineers in such fields as calculation, clean copy of design drawings or technical document rewriting. We had one support worker for every five researchers and engineers. Much larger and more prestigious companies like "FF" provided one support worker for every two researchers and engineers. This story means that technical documents made by researchers and engineers were not good enough to be read by others.

One of the main products of Ricoh at that time was a daisy wheel printer. A planning department made a plan to develop a word processor by combining this printer with the then newly-invented microcomputer and floppy disk. This system was a landmark product in which a computer was used for "word processing" rather than numerical processing, which had until then been the only processing object.

The target markets were the USA and Europe, and the word processor began to be shipped from August 1977; it was the first word processor exported overseas from Japan.

As the users of this word processor were typists, professional ladies in the USA or in Europe, this word processor's specification was designed for ladies. The typist normally looks at original document and occasionally checks the typed letters on the display, which is not so important. The display was designed to show only one line of characters. After the office work is finished, the display and keyboard are no use. The user loved to leave the desk clean, without any word processing equipment on it. The display was made thin enough to be placed below the table. Of course, this special design increased the total cost.

Picture of WP-1

WP-1 was designed for the professional typist who rarely used the display, which could show only one line of characters and was installed under the table. When it was not used, the cover, which also doubled as a document stand, could be pulled down to cover the display and keyboard and this made the table flat.

Figure 1: Input pattern and character pattern matching

Our competitor in the USA designed its WP based on the different concept that non-experts would be the main users. In 1978, thecompact word processor with a small but full-size CRT display was introduced into the market. This product, which was easy to use and much cheaper than Ricoh's WP-1, soon became popular, and attracted many nonprofessional typists, including office workers, engineers, clerks, and even lawyers. Within a few years, the occupation of professional typist began to disappear from the office.

A professional typist types in the characters, which are then examined and completed by others. It means that her typing performance is most important. Compared to the professional typist, normal users key in words and phrases while composing sentences. They may edit multiple times until the sentence or layout is fixed. The requirement of those non-expert users is different from expert users. It is obvious that non-expert like to use a two-dimensional display. As a consequence, Ricoh's WP-1 was pushed out of the market within a few years.

Then Ricoh changed its strategy and developed a Japanese word processor, the Riport600/400 series (Figure 2), focusing on the Japanese market. As I explained above, a Japanese office has many ladies as support workers for researchers and engineers. This Japanese word processor was aimed to be used by those ladies. Therefore it was important to design the efficient keyboard interface for support workers. Ricoh adopted keyboard interface software which translated key strokes to Japanese words most efficiently, the method is called the "two stroke Kanji input" method, for the well trained users.

Picture of Riport600/400 series

Figure 2: Riport 600/400 series

Most engineers were trained to follow the golden rule, "no product should ask the user to manipulate it in a different way from the normal way; technology should adapt to the user." Because of this rule, every engineer in Japan at that time believed that "ordinary Japanese would never accept the key input." To be accepted to the average Japanese users, we continue the effort to develop the OCR to recognize hand-written Japanese characters. But this technology never achieved the goal as an alternative way of key input.

At the same time, a new Kana-Kanji input method was introduced by Osaka University. It was called "the longest-string match of two phrases" method, and this could translate Kana character strings into Kanji word strings correctly. This algorithm does not require Kanji input, all that is necessary is to key in Kana and the system automatically changes it into the Kanji included the Japanese sentence. It was so successful and became popular in the market among non professional people. The real users were normal office workers who had previously been reluctant to use the keyboard. As Ricoh was developing a translation system for English and Japanese at that time, it was not difficult to develop a better translation algorithm from the Kana to Kanji strings. This new system was well received in the market in December 1981 and it gained the second biggest market share after "F" company. Then it was found that the Japanese word processor with a keyboard could be accepted by normal Japanese users. Discovering this, as many as 30 companies entered this market within a few years. But the technology also changed: the PC (personal computer) became so popular and every PC had word-processing software in it. The single-purpose Word Processor market disappeared after about 10 years of competition. A long series of new products from a range of new technologies changed the market as well as people whom everybody believed impossible to change. Japanese users accepted the keyboard.

The above story shows that only after the product was introduced, we could know the user needs. That means the developing speed is very important for successful products. To tell the truth, a major electronic maker, "T" company, developed the Japanese word processor in 1978 after more than 10 years of basic research for Japanese processing. It was sold with the price of 630 million yen because they used a powerful mini-computer for Japanese processing. As it was so expensive, it was not accepted in the market. But "F" company, which changed the mini-computer to successfully micro-compute, reduced the price to 1/10, and hit the market.

After discovering that a market exists, many companies join in. They compete with each other, providing many kinds of products, using the market as a laboratory. And now, the word processor changed our society. The emergence of the word processor has totally changed our society. Since we create documents by ourselves with word processor software, some supporting jobs, such as tracers and professional typists have disappeared. The word processor introduced a new culture of key input in Japan. Furthermore, as the Internet and mobile phone became popular, it produced an e-mail culture and eventually led to key input with the thumb. A new product well matched to needs sometimes changes our society.

The engineering golden rule was born about 100 years ago. Human adaptability has been evolving for millions of years. As an automobile is inevitable in American life, the word processor became inevitable in modern life. If the product happens to fit very well, humans adapt it very quickly and change their society completely.

(Ej, 2009.12)