- Making IT: The Rise of Asia in High Tech
The early twenty-first century is awash with IT (information technology) products manufactured in Asia. My situation is typical; without leaving my desk I was able to note that my cell phone had been made in Korea and the CD player originated in China, as did the keyboard and flat-panel display of my computer. I refrained from disassembling the computer, but it is likely that the disc drive came from Singapore and that the majority of its innards were produced in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, while its operating system and applications probably were developed in part by Indian programmers.
How all of this came about is detailed in Making IT: The Rise of Asia in High Tech. In narrating the causes of Asia's accomplishments,Making IT includes chapters covering Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, China, and India, while Japan gets two chapters and two appendixes. There is also an introductory chapter and separate chapters discussing the role of government, universities, and venture capital. The chapters covering individual countries pack in a lot of detail—more perhaps than many readers need or want to absorb. These can be slow going in places because, as with academic and business-press literature on IT, readers have to put up with a vast array of acronyms. Also, for those not intimately familiar with the international IT industry, the large number of individual firms cited in various parts of the text can be a distraction from the main narrative.
After perhaps feeling a bit dazed by the plethora of information contained in these chapters, readers will appreciate the following ones that synthesize the country-by-country narratives. As these make evident, there has been a great deal of variation in the policies, strategies, and historical experiences of the countries, confirming a caution presented early in the book that "Those looking for an explicit model that accounts for how Asia rose will be disappointed" (p. x). Not only has a single model been absent, there have been marked divergences in the basic components of each country's IT strategies. For example, direct foreign investment was actively blocked for many years in India, Korea, and Japan, yet it has been an essential element in the development of IT industries in China, Singapore, and Taiwan. [End Page 481] There also has been considerable variation in the importance of venture capital and the strength of linkages between universities and IT firms.
One of the most contentious issues in accounting for the success of the Asian IT industry has been the role of government. Here, again, there has been considerable variation. The simplest and safest generalization is that none of these countries has taken a laissez-faire approach. The only East Asian country whose government has remained largely passive has been Hong Kong, and not coincidentally Hong Kong has been an insignificant player in the IT industry. At the same time, however, governments have nurtured the development of their IT industries in their own way. To cite two examples, the Korean government provided a host of financial incentives so that well-established large firms (chaebol) could plunge headfirst into IT; in contrast, the development of Taiwan's IT industry has for the most part been the work of small and medium-sized firms, but many of them have benefited greatly from being located in the government-sponsored Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park.
Whatever its sources, the overall success of the Asian IT industry is indisputable. Still, the question must be asked:Will Asian countries be able to take a leading role in the creation of IT in addition to developing and adapting technologies that originated elsewhere? This issue is most evident in Asia's most mature industrial economy, Japan, where entrenched large-scale firms have effectively developed and marketed incremental innovations, but have a mediocre record in regard to cutting-edge technologies. Other countries that have come later to the IT industry may not have...