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Evolutionary cycles

I yesterday went shopping for an LCD television for a friend of mine. I went to Richer sounds (a splendid and rather uncharacteristic British retailer known for selling high quality electronic merchandise at low prices from relatively unfashionable locations where the rent is low, providing fine customer service and treating employees well), and I ended up buying a Sharp TV. Interesting company, Sharp. People sometimes think the name is a little odd. For what it is worth, the company originally made mechanical pencils for engineering purposes, and they wanted to make it clear that they were very sharp (true story).

Japanese companies seem to divide into two kinds. There were pre-WWII monoliths – the so called zaibatsus. American policy after the war was that these were far too powerful and that they were to be broken up into smaller companies. This American policy failed. They zaibatsus were theoretically broken up into smaller units, but they retained a complex arrangement of holding companies and cross shareholdings in which management control largely remained in place even though the companies had theoretically been split up. They evolved into post war industrial groupings known as keiretsus. These companies remained politically well connected, and when Japan attempted to grow its exports through government directed industrial policy, these were the beneficiaries of it. These keiretsus included Mitsui/Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Matsushita (Panasonic), and others.

As I said, these well connected companies were recipients of government largesse, and those who would wish to praise government industrial policy would tend to construct a story that this led to Japan’s industrial success in the 1970s and the 1980s.

But of course, the story is more complex than this, There is a really good book about this, We Were Burning: Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age by Bob Johnstone. The interesting part of the story is that although the keiretsus did benefit from the growth of the Japanese electronic industry, they were not where its innovation came from. The companies that were the heroes in this regard were small, non-existent or unfashionable in 1945, or were discarded or disdained pieces of broken zaibatsus, In particular, we are talking companies like Seiko-Epson, Canon, Yamaha, or even Sanyo or Honda or Suzuki (the Japanese government tried to micromanage the car industry, but the motorcycle industry was seen as less interesting, and so that is where the interesting companies ended up coming from).

In electronics, in the 1970s, Sharp’s research was led by Sasaki Tadashi, whose enthusiasm earned him the truly glorious nickname of “Dr Rocket” – personally I would almost kill for such. In that era Sharp pretty much invented the electronic calculator and the LCD display. Sharp remains a leader in LCD display technology to this day.

To the extent, that in this day of LCD television, Sharp is the only Japanese company worth mentioning in this market. Sony – a company that rode a totally unique route between the keiretsu and the post war upstart, but which in the end did a better job of selling itself as a brand than an innovator – was the undoubted leader in the era of CRT televisions, but (perhaps as a consequence) totally missed the transition to flat screens. A lot of fancy televisions are sold today under the Sony brandname, but these were generally actually made by Samsung, or (in certain high end cases) by Sharp. The only Japanese company that actually makes televisions today is Sharp. The company that always was the great innovator: the company that Sony pretended to be.

Which is why I was happy to buy such a set for my friend.

12 comments to Evolutionary cycles

  • West

    I hope your gift to your friend serves him well, but in my experience Sharp products, while having competitive specs and nice looks, do not last very long before some vital component self-immolates and the device dies. The vital component will be part of a monolithic structure within the device that will be more costly to replace than to just buy a new unit.

    Sorry to harsh your mellow – everybody likes to think they got a deal when making a purchase, especially a gift, and there is some chance that your purchase will function well for your friend (law of averages and all that), but I personally will never buy a Sharp product again. This post was really meant more as cautionary advice for your readers than to snark at your (possible, and IMO) shopping judgment.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Contemplationist


    Are you saying that today’s Bravia or XBR line by Sony is not made by Sony? Thats very interesting if its true.

  • http://www.smarthouse.com.au/TVs_And_Large_Display/LCD/W3F9N2T6

    Sony is responsible for the packaging of the panel with respect to design, associated electronics, maybe the backlighting, but the LCD panels themselves are bought from other companies. (One factory in Korea is theoretically a Samsung-Sony joint venture, and Sony certainly invested some money in it, but Samsung is the technology leader there). Sony is doing lots of interesting things with Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) displays, which will probably be the next generation of TVs when they are cheap enough, but to a large extent they missed the boat on LCDs.

  • IIRC, it’s the same with Sony plasmas, at least it was when we bought ours 6 years ago.

  • James Waterton

    Interesting. I recently bought an LCD TV, and was tossing up between equivalent Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Sharp models. The Sony was knocked out in the first round of decision-making, because there was a 15-20% premium on the Sony product – for the sole reason that it was a Sony, as far as I could see. That’s a bit rich, in light of Michael’s revelations. Still, I guess there’s a fair amount of cachet associated with the Sony brand.

  • manuel II paleologos

    In my experience Richer Sounds is a shop staffed by people with a sneering disdain for their customers the likes of which I haven’t seen outside British Airways and perhaps M&S. I find all companies which make a big song and dance about how well they treat their own staff end up a bit like this, but Richer Sounds is the worst I’ve seen. And its business proposition is based around educating you on what a gullible idiot you are for not using separates with gold-plated cables (a topic Glenn Reynolds periodically covers with his usual gusto).

    Last thing I bought there was a video recorder with hard drive which turned out to have a couple of months of TV already recorded onto it, even though it was sold as new, and I had to argue hard with them before they grudgingly replaced it, with their normal attitude that I didn’t really understand what I was talking about.

  • Adam Maas

    One correction, the companies which dominated the electronic calculator business in the 1970’s were TI and HP. HP invented the scientific calculator and dominated the market along with TI until the 90’s. Casio and Sharp (along with Canon) were much smaller players until the market for low-end scientific calculators took off in the 1990’s.

    Sharp’s only significant contribution to the development of the electronic calculator was the reflective LCD display.

    As to the TV’s, you are correct for the Panel portion of the TV, but the rest of a Sony TV is actually made by Sony and there’s a significant chunk of the basic TV’s electronics that this covers (inlcuding HDMI and component decoding and the tuner as well as the actual control unit for the display). Sharp is a significant player in the Panel business, but their finished products are complete also-rans in the market compared to Sony or Panasonic who do the finished product significantly better. Characterizing a Sony TV as made by Samsung or Sharp is about as correct as saying a non-Sony CRT with a Trinitron tube was made by Sony or saying every PC with a Core 2 Duo or i7 processor is made by Intel. It’s only one major component that is actually made by the companies in question and there’s significantly more to the equation.

  • Casio and Sharp (along with Canon) were much smaller players until the market for low-end scientific calculators took off in the 1990’s.

    More like the late 80s. Everyone I knew in school had a Casio one, I still got mine. It has a light-powered battery which was never replaced (if it was even supposed to be replaceable), and it works like a Swiss clock.

  • As far as the history of the calculator is concerned, as far as I am aware, the first commercially produced transistor based calculator was the Sharp Compet CS 10A in 1964. This cost as much as a small car, but it was a first. It was Sharp’s QT8-D in 1969 which was the first battery operated handheld calculator and the first based on MOS chips. (This was based around components purchased from Rockwell in California). Sharp was named Hayakawa Electric until 1970, so references to products produced before this date will not always include the name “Sharp”.

    TI did not actually produce a handheld calculator until 1971.

    As you mentioned, Sharp then produced the first calculator with an LCD display in 1973.

    It is true that TI and HP were big players in the calculator market in the 1970s, and they (particularly HP) may have dominated the office and scientific calculator market in that period, but Sharp and Casio were always there. The Japanese turned the calculator into a mass market product, at least they did in the parts of the world I was familiar with.

    My recollection of calculators taking off as a mass market product is that this happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was given a Casio scientific calculator by my parents as a gift around then. If I recall correctly, it had an LED display and really went through the batteries. Not long after this, much cheaper calculators with the said reflective LCD displays came along, and a positive benefit was much greater battery life.

    As a child in Australia in the 1970s, I was pretty much unaware of the existence of TI and HP, and calculators from Japanese manufacturers – Sharp and Casio – were all I ever saw. I certainly later saw HP calculators being used by scientists and engineers, but TI calculators were something I pretty much never saw before visiting the US later on, although I do occasionally recall their being referred to in US computer magazines and books. This makes me wonder if their dominance of the calculator market may have been a US thing only.

  • pete

    All very interesting, and I do like Richer Sounds.

    But until my 1989 Toshiba TV dies I won’t be buying a new slimline TV, and it has been trouble free for every day of the last 20 years. I don’t need the space in the corner of my front room which the back of my bulky TV occupies.

  • I must be the only person in the world who still watches a CRT TV.

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    Two years ago, the circa 1983 age 32″ Sony Trinitron finally died. I ended up trying a Sharp. It had the weirdest shimmer in the picture at times, especially when there was a fast-moving scene. Like looking through an almost clear waterfall. It went back.
    Also annoying was the fact that it took a long and involved set of steps through the menu to change the input source. This may not be a problem for some users, who only have one source, but for users with antenna, cable and computer sources 16 button presses on the remote was unacceptable.
    Ended up with an LG product which may, or may not, have an LCD screen made by that same Samsung/Sony owned plant in Korea! The electronics and control menu are quite different from the competitors.
    Among other things, changing inputs is a dedicated button on the side of the box, and a dedicated button on the remote. Since I have an antenna, cable and run Mythtv this is an incredibly important consideration.
    NOT true of the Sharp, Sony, Samsung or other brands I checked out at Best Buy in Mississauga, Ontario.
    I hope your purchase does not fall afoul of this problem. I understand that you can receive DVB-T, DVB-C and DVB-S transmissions in London. Correct?