Japan stays open for business

Companies adjust to conditions by constantly questioning market needs.

July in Tokyo is hot and humid, with the sky close and gray. It frequently rains. The weather must have been similar when Commodore Perry and his fleet of four warships sailed into Tokyo Bay in July 1853, and demanded that Japan be opened to foreign business. Within a few years the ruling Tokugawa feudal state had collapsed, the emperor and a new government were in control, and, after 250 years of near-complete isolation, trade with the outside world resumed.

Since then, and especially in the past 50 years, Japan has built an advanced economy by understanding market directions and customer needs. These facts were on my mind when I attended two July conferences on optoelectronics: InterOpto 2003; organized by the Japanese Optoelectronic Industry and Technology Development Association, and the Fiber Optic Forum, cosponsored by WDM Solutions and Nikkei Electronics magazines.

At first glance the omens were not favorable for a successful InterOpto, held as usual in the massive Makuhari Messe in the Tokyo suburb of Chiba. The global recession in high tech combined with structural problems in the Japanese economy and fear of SARS to lower expectations. Indeed, attendance declined to 15,500 from 19,300 in 2002. Exhibitors numbered 277, on par with last year, but the vast exhibit hall seemed sparsely populated. Still, the mood and number of new products on display showed an optoelectronics industry that is continually reevaluating and recasting itself in response to global competition, especially from China, and in anticipation of better times.

Perhaps the fact that the Tokyo stock market has been rising recently inspired the optimism. More likely the companies were adjusting to the slow telecom market and offering products aimed at new markets, including access and home networking, advanced metrology, and manufacturing.

Pointed questions

As an export-driven economy, the recurrent questions from many Japanese exhibitors were: "When will bandwidth demand pick up in the U.S. and when will fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) occur?" The Japanese FTTH market is quite hot, with between 300,000 and 400,000 subscribers already on board and fierce competition for service delivery between communications companies such as NTT and electric power utilities such as Tokyo Electric Power Company, which takes advantage of its power-line infrastructure to deliver FTTH. Hoping to reap sales from FTTH by providing high-speed home and facility networking, FujiFilm Group (Tokyo) was exhibiting it graded-index plastic optical fiber Lumistar, along with a line of vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers for Gigabit Ethernet systems.

Start-up companies were also in evidence. The Optical Comb Institute (Tokyo) displayed its first product, the BK-SM625C ultraprecise, wide-span optical comb generator, which is based on direct phase modulation of light by a Fabry-Perot electro-optic modulator. The all-passive component design measures optical frequency with very high accuracy and could help shift metrology standards from wavelength to direct optical frequency measurements. The company has been "incubated" at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and has delivered the technology to several telecom research labs and even a microwave astronomy facility.

Form fitting

Design and manufacturing issues for next-generation products were the focus of the Fiber Optic Forum, which drew more than 120 engineers and managers. The single most asked question at the Forum—and by several multinational companies I visited in the Tokyo region—was: "Which form factor design will win out and when?"

The question of whether 300-pin, Xenpak, XFP, or another design will rule is critical to the planning of these companies. It was addressed at the Forum by Tom Hausken, director of optical communications components at Strategies Unlimited, a research group of PennWell. He sees a definite migration toward XFP for 10-Gbit/s systems, but the pace is impossible to specify and the 300-pin form factor is clearly dominant now.

After 150 years, Japanese manufacturing companies lead the world by repeatedly asking these types of questions, developing high-value products, and taking the long view of their market positions.

Conard Holton is editor in chief of WDM Solutions, and executive editor of Laser Focus World; e-mail: cholton@pennwell.com.

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