Kay Nishi bridges the cultural gap. Betsy Staples.
"If you want to seucceed in personal computing, just drop out of college." Sometimes that seems to be the best advice for an aspiring enterpreneur in computerdom. Everyone knows about Steves Jobs and Wozniak of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and many others or lesser fame but comparable wealth.
And when you get right down to it, this familiar pattern is not really too surprising. It is quite in keeping with the entrepreneurial nature of our economy. But, as you now know from having read most of the articles in this issue, it would be very unusual in Japan, where most of a young person's energy is spent preparing for the entrance exam that will get him into the school that will, upon graduation, get him a job in the company that will offer him lifetime employment.
That is why Kay Nishi is worth writing about. As president of ASCII Microsoft, the division of the software for 8-bit machines, Mishi is one of the most powerful people in the industry. And how did he get that way? By dropping out of the prestigious Waseda University and getting involved with personal computers back when they were just game machines.
In late 1975, he and a friend designed a game using the GI chip. He then went to GI and attempted to buy some chips so he could begin to manufacture the game. "They said, 'you have to buy in large quantities.' I didn't have enough money to do that, so instead of selling a game, I decided to sell the information I had used in designing it.
"So I wrote a magazine article, and it went really well. Soon many publishers were asking me to write articles about video games.
"Then I decided that instead of writing for other people. I would write a book and publish it. But I soon changed my mind again and decided to publish a magazine of games and other electronic products. That was my first magazine, IO, which is today primarily a hobby magazine."
Later he started ASCII magazine, and "whenever I wrote about a product I felt I could have made it better. So I decided to troy. But I didn't want to get into manufacturing, so I decided to try software design. But I needed an enterpreter, and who had an interpreter? Microsoft.
"So at midnight one night in August of 1977 I picked up the phone and called Microsoft in Albuquerque, NM. 'May I talk to your president?' I asked. Bill Gates picked up the phone, and we started talking, and by the end of the conversation, I had offered to send him a ticket so he could come to Japan. He said he couldn't do that, so I went there.
"I said 'Let's sell software,' and after some more discussion we decided to work together. By late 1978 we had a contract with NEC to design the hardware and software for the product that was to become the NEC PC-8000, the first microcomputer with Microsoft Basic. We launched a product, and since then everything has been phenomenal."
Thus began a frenetic existence divided almost equally between Tokyo and the West Coast of the United States. Nishi regularly jets across the Pacific, always travelling first class and frequently conducting business meetings in the air. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, for example, we met the president of an American for Tokyo so he could catch a plane and meet with Nishi during the flight to Seattle. "I don't want to go to Seattle," he told us, "but it's the only way we can get together."
Somewhere between the birth of IO and the phone call to Gates, Nishi met Dave Ahl at an early computer fair. Nishi was familiar with the DEC version of 101 Basic Computer Games and asked for permission to produce a Japanese version of the microcomputer edition. The two publishers struck an informal deal, and ASCII has been publishing the book and its sequel, More Basic Games, ever since.
"Basic Computer Games is my most favorite book," says Nishi. "It sustained ASCII magazine during the early years when it wasn't making very much money."
Those years are long gone, however. In 1982, the annual revenue of ASCII Microsoft was $20 million, about half of which came from software sales. The other half was attributable to book and magazine publishing, but the ratio is changing as software becomes more important to the company.
Nishi's latest crusade is on behalf of MSX. He believes strongly in the new standard that has done so well in Japan and is spending much of his time in both Occident and Orient trying to convince others--software publishers, hardware manufacturers, and the press--that MSX is the wave of the future.
And if past performance is any indication, he will succeed. If there is an MSX machine in your future, it will probably be due to the efforts of the indefatigable Kay Nishi.