Read the unconventional autobiography of Kazuhiko Nishi, the man who started the revolution with Bill Gates

What should be made into a movie is ASCII's corporate history.

Engadget JP (Translation)
Engadget JP (Translation) , @Engadget_MT
2020年10月2日, 午後 11:09 in egmt
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反省記

This article is based on an article from the Japanese edition of Engadget and was created using the translation tool Deepl.


I was asked by the editor-in-chief of Engadget Japan to review the autobiography of former ASCII president Kazuhiko Nishimoto, Hanseiki (Reflections). The reason being that the editor-in-chief was also a former employee of ASCII.

Kazuhiko Nishi, a man no one under 40 knows about

For people under 40, the chaos of the PC industry in the late '70s and '80s must be unknown to them. That said, the stories of that era have been told only in bits and pieces, and the products of that time are nowhere to be seen or heard, and their specifications seem orders of magnitude poorer than they are today. However, there were a number of laws of market domination for the "de facto standard" that was hidden in plain sight.

In my life, I have many contacts who are former ASCII employees, former Apple employees, and former Recruit employees. In addition, there is an increasing number of venture minded presidents, a former Livedoor employee, and a former Softbank employee. It seems to me that each of them is a brilliant inheritor of the DNA and networks of their companies of origin. In Silicon Valley, too, networks of companies of origin are forming in the same vein, and connections are being made.

In Silicon Valley, there was William Shockley

The semiconductor business was born in a laboratory created in 1956 by William Shockley, who once returned from Bell Labs on the East Coast of the United States to his hometown orchard in Palo Alto. Its staff broke away to form Fairchild Corporation, and from there Intel and Kleiner Perkins were born.

Kazuhiko Nishi is the man who started the personal computer industry in Japan, founded ASCII and connected Microsoft to the Japanese establishment in the 1980s.

None of the world's leading "GAFA" companies today are former establishments. All came from garage companies. History has proven that new industries are always born only from ventures, not from big companies. This is because ventures always start where big companies think they can't make money. And it seems that only those who are more flexible to adapt to market trends than the big companies and who are in the eye of the goddess of happiness will be the ones who succeed.

Reading like a time machine that travels back in time

Japan was at the dawn of the personal computer era from the 1970s to the 1980s. It was a time when Japan boasted of its prosperity as the world's second-largest personal computer market after the United States. No one can deny that Kazuhiko Nishi was at the center of Microsoft's MS-DOS era, which is comparable to today's GAFA. Kazuhiko Nishi was the only link between Microsoft and Japanese manufacturers. Softbank's Masayoshi Son was still chasing after ASCII's back in software distribution and publishing. Kazuhiko Nishi founded ASCII in 1977, while Masayoshi Son's SoftBank of Japan was founded in 1981. There is a "big gap of four years".

This book is a full-bodied, naked exposé of the life of Kazuhiko Nishi, the founder of ASCII, as well as a memoir of his reflections. But it is also the only book in Japanese that allows us to travel through the world of Microsoft executives in a time machine through the filter of Kazuhiko Nishi.

The book not only gives us a nostalgic view of the early days of the PC but also makes us feel the possibility that a venture with Kazuhiko Nishi's way of life might be possible even in the GAFA era. His personality is pure and innocent, uninhibited, eccentric, and full of diversity. He was the youngest person to go public in his early twenties, and he lived in the Hotel Okura and the international airplane, where he practiced the concept of "computers as a medium" on a global scale.

If we look at this "Reflections" in broad terms, it can be divided into the first half of his life, the golden years when he joined forces with Microsoft, and the days of hell that followed.

Enjoying Ascii's point of view from Kazuhiko Nishi's side

It's also an encouraging book, not only for the anecdotes I've heard via the media and the marketing ideas of how vulnerable people can fight, but also for the speed with which he actually acts. At the same time, the stories in this book make us want to keep asking ourselves how we could control the uncontrollable monster known as "Kazuhiko Nishi" and what we would do if we were in that position. How long has Kazuhiko Nishi been fighting the beast in his heart?

Above all, the most noteworthy aspect of this documentary is that it is based on the viewpoints of the people involved, rather than a fictional story. Naturally, many former ASCII insiders would argue that this is just the perspective of Kazuhiko Nishi's side. However, I think there is no harm in seeing the landscape as seen from Kazuhiko Nishi's point of view. It's very exciting and dramatic. You could think of it as a venture version of "Hanzawa Naoki". No, this is an original work that could be made into a series, just like NETFLIX's "The Naked Director", and shouldn't the scenery of Japan's bubble economy at the time be preserved as footage? In those days, the Japanese market was ignited by "Maicom (microcomputer)", along with adult videos, and the PC was the hottest product on the market.

What if it happened?

Windows 95 was released, the Internet was in its infancy, and now smartphones are in full swing. Nevertheless, Microsoft has always been at the top of the market capitalization rankings.

What if, at that time, he had accepted Bill Gates' invitation to buy out Japan's Ascii to Microsoft and take Microsoft's listing? What would have happened if he had owned the shares of the company as the number three position before it was listed? Despite being admonished by many prominent executives, Mr. Kazuhiko Nishi is such a terrifying character that he has fallen into the same rut over and over again. He had interactions with Sony's Norio Ohga, Kyocera's Kazuo Inamori, and some of the most powerful teachers in the world. What kind of life has this Japanese man, who was practically the number three man at Microsoft, led? That's what you'll find in this book.

My first encounter with Kazuhiko Nishi was at the TED4 conference held in Kobe in 1993. I sat down next to Nishi and told him that I was running a media company in Kobe, where he and I are both from. The first thing he said to me was, "Kanda-kun, you need to do your media in Tokyo." At that time, I was publishing the world's first free Macintosh paper in the Kansai area. We were competing exclusively in the Kansai area, Japan's second-largest market, which was not Tokyo.

Most memorably, just sitting next to Kazuhiko Nishi during the conference was enough to bring in Mitch Kapor of Lotus, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, and all sorts of other living IT greats of the time to exchange information. Kazuhiko Nishi talked with them in his Kansai accent in English, one after the other. He was able to hear them talk about the products they were developing at the elevator pitch. This is the greatness of Kazuhiko Nishi's network.

What surprised me the most was his superhuman schedule: he left Kobe after the conference, returned to Tokyo in the evening for a meeting, and was in Kobe by noon the next day. All the while saying, "I can sleep on the Shinkansen." This is how Kazuhiko Nishi must have traveled back and forth between Japan and Seattle.

The source of Kazuhiko Nishi's network was his ability to take action. He had a good chance of success by going to the computer shows, connecting with key people, and networking with them. He also signed an exclusive sales contract with Bill Gates, and 40% of Microsoft's global sales came from Japan, making him the company's third board member at the time, after Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

But the speed with which Paul Allen was able to woo and acquire the Seattle-based 16-bit OS company on the spot is also like a movie. If Gary Kildall hadn't been the man in the sky, maybe even Microsoft wouldn't have taken a chance.

I used to run a free newspaper in the Kansai area, and I was impressed by Kazuhiko Nishi's sales style in the sales of the Monthly ASCII magazine, where he temporarily left the magazine in the magazine corner of the bookstore, and while he was in the toilet, Mr. Gunji pretended to be a customer and bought it, just like a comedy show. Incidentally, in the book "The Secret History of Personal Computers" written by Mr. Susumu Furukawa, who is considered a traitor in this book, it is stated that he did not want to deal with a storm of returned books from bookstores, but to get direct sales from bookstores, and it is interesting to read both sides of the story.

By the way, the story that Kazuhiko Nishi got on board by helicopter when he visited Intel is well known, but I was surprised that he negotiated directly with a helicopter at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Silicon Valley is 60 km south of San Francisco, but it would be very difficult to drive a car to the companies at a distance of several dozen kilometers. It may have been possible for anyone to negotiate a deal with a sightseeing helicopter for a day's sales and to pay more for fuel. Above all, the impact of Japanese CEO coming by helicopter is too much. His seemingly unorthodox behavior must have been born out of his decision-making process in pursuit of rationality.

But, like William Shockley, there was always no number two around Kazuhiko Nishi. He always seemed to be alone. In the second half of the book, he is rescued by the late CSK chairman Isao Okawa from a situation in which his entourage and associates were leaving him, and after writing a blood letter, he became part of CSK and began a completely different life. The dilemma of the game console market can be experienced from the perspective of CSK, a shareholder of SEGA. While betting on the Dreamcast at Sega, it can't beat the late-comer PlayStation. At the same time, Kazuhiko Nishi experiences the thought of being kept by people for the first time in his life.

反省記
From the NEC PC 40th Anniversary Event (August 2019)

And now, Kazuhiko Nishi is taking a new look at his life as an educator, overlooking the various stories with his past. Some are active, like Bill Gates and Masayoshi Son, while "aliens" such as Takafumi Horie, who has moved on, and Kazuhiko Nishi, who has thrown himself into academia, are elusive. Of course, it is important to keep a record of the many episodes of their lives, not just the heavenly and hellish ones, for the sake of data.

Yes, it would be very interesting for the modern industrial history of Japan to verify the facts from each direction based on the data and truth of the time while the people involved are still alive, and I can't wait to see "ASCII" on NETFLIX or in a movie. Can someone make it? If you have help with the script, I'd love to run for it.

In Alan Kaye's terms, I suppose I should be able to create my own future...


This article is based on an article from the Japanese edition of Engadget and was created using the translation tool Deepl. The Japanese edition of Engadget does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of this article.


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