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Open source: Made in Japan?

Open source has traditionally not had much of a foothold in Japan. Or has it?

For years I've assumed that Japan is not a big contributor to open source. My first real open source-related job was in embedded Linux, which saw plenty of big electronics OEMs using Linux (e.g., Sony, Matsushita, etc.), but not really doing anything in the way of contributing to open-source software.

It's perhaps time to rethink that notion.

I talked with Jesse Casman and Craig Oda of PageOne PR upon their return from Japan and got a very different picture on the Japanese open-source market. There's Takashi Iwai, for example, currently one of the top-10 contributors to the Linux kernel. And then there's Yukihiro ("Matz") Matsumoto, the chief designer of the Ruby programming language, of course. There's Plat'Home, the company that introduced Linux in Japan in 1993 (yes, 1993!), did a successful IPO in Japan in 2000, and currently ships microservers based on their own mix of Linux and BSD that fit in the palm of your hand. There's Turbolinux and Miracle Linux, as well.

But there's even more, more that I never would have guessed.

At the Open Source Conference 2008, held in Tokyo February 29 - March 1 this year, there were about 100 sponsors, publications and open-source projects and companies enthusiastically hawking their wares. Yes, some of these were the local teams of open-source projects in the West like the Ubuntu Japan Team, The Japan MySQL User Group, and others. But many were young kids, with a smart team, building up companies around great technologies and ideas.

As just one example, SecureVM is an interesting open-source virtual machine project that is designed for Japanese government use with involvement from the Japan National Information Security Center (NISC). It was just open sourced this month as a work in progress. The project involves Tsukuba University, Intel, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Keio University, Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Toyota National College of Technology, Fujitsu, NEC, Hitachi, NTT, NTT DATA, and SoftEther.

The Japanese government, never fully trusting Smith's "invisible hand," is doing its part as well. In this past two weeks two different Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) events in Silicon Valley showcased Japan's "super creators," young engineers, utilizing a lot of open-source software, coming up with great ideas, great teams.

One of those companies, DTS, did a demo of its PlatinumHDD product, a flash-based hybrid hard disk with RAM and UPS built onto the disk, running Linux. Their incredible transaction performance speeds are very green, requiring significantly fewer servers for comparable tasks, and are already in use by NTT, Japan's largest company, the Japan Post Office, The Genome Linux cluster, and many others.

All of which has me thinking....I've long ignored the Japanese market, despite the fact that my first job out of my Masters program was with Japan's Mitsui & Co., one of the world's oldest companies. I just figured Japan wasn't buying into open source; that it wasn't growing much open source.

After hearing from Jesse and Craig, I wonder if they're right: "In open source, if you're not paying attention to Japan, you're just not paying attention." Indeed. Perhaps the Japanese market is much more mature in open source than I had thought.

Do you have any experience selling open source into Japan?