William Saito is a Japanese-American entrepreneur, former Japanese political and strategic advisor, and cybersecurity expert. Saito has been a member of the tech world for a long time; at age 10, he landed his first internship in computer programming. Saito started his own software firm in college, out of his dorm room. This company, which eventually became I/O Software, was instrumental in the Japanese software space and developed authentication tools such as fingerprint recognition in collaboration with Sony. In 2000, at the age of 34, he sold I/O Software to Microsoft. William Saito was recognized as Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998.
Saito’s new book, An Unprogrammed Life: Adventures of an Incurable Entrepreneur, details his early days developing his business and trying to make it in the burgeoning tech world, beginning in the 1980s.
Programming from a Young Age in an Exciting Time for Technology
Saito grew up in Walnut, CA, just a few hours away from Silicon Valley, in a time in the 1970s and 1980s that was arguably one of the most exciting for the tech industry due to the rise of personal computing. Saito was not immune to this enthusiasm and his science teacher recommended he get a personal computer to help develop his math and science skills. Despite the fact that he is a first-generation American born to Japanese parents, he struggled to learn English growing up, in part due to his parents’ poor English skills.
However, despite his poor English skills growing up, Saito has always had an engineering mind. “I’ve always liked taking things apart,” William Saito writes in An Unprogrammed Life. “I’d see a gadget, a device, a new appliance in the family living room, and I’d start wondering how it worked.” In particular, Saito details his experiences with figuring out how to break copy protection, just for fun. “Some people enjoy crossword puzzles or brain twisters, and others, like me, enjoy getting inside software to see how it works.” Saito relates that he had been working on breaking the copy-protection found in software since fifth grade; of course, around the 1980s when Saito grew up, computer software was a lot less complicated than it is today. Saito capitalized on his interest in software and programming and started his own company to create security software with some friends in college.
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William Saito’s passion for taking things apart to figure out how they work led to the founding of his software company, I/O Software, in 1991 as a college student. This was in the early ages of the Internet. While not quite as widespread at the time of the company’s founding, the tech world began to take off just a few short years later. One could use programs like America Online and their phone line to gain access to the internet – which was at the time rather slow but very new and exciting.
Growing up a Geek
Personal computing was a concept that had just recently become popular a couple of decades earlier. As Saito explains in his book, in the 1970s and early 1980s, computers had finally gone from being the massive structures that were the size of a room to being small enough to be used in one’s home. Several computer companies, including Hewlett-Packard and IBM, released compact desktop computers in the 1970s, which were convenient and powerful but cost almost $20,000.
In 1976, Steve Wozniak invented the Apple I computer and suggested to Steve Jobs, the late former CEO of Apple, that they sell it. The Apple I was not as successful as the next computer designed by the Apple geeks. The Apple II was introduced a year later in 1977 and sold millions of units. In 1981, IBM entered the personal computing space and introduced their own version of what they called a “microcomputer” with an Intel processor and cost over $2,000, which was expensive but not as expensive as the computers of the 1970s.
In An Unprogrammed Life, William Saito discusses his excitement when his parents purchased him an IBM computer. In an effort to boost Saito’s math and science skills, as recommended by his teachers, his parents actually took out a second mortgage on their house to purchase the computer for $5,000. Outfitted with all of the most modern technologies of the time, Saito’s new computer became his new favorite addiction. Due to Saito’s insatiable curiosity, he immediately decided to take his computer apart, which drew the ire and wrath of his parents. He then learned, as a young preteen, how to put a computer back together. This experience, though perhaps a bit scary, helped develop his interest in the inner workings of computing and software.
Over the next few years, William Saito taught himself to program in the computer languages of the time, such as BASIC. As a junior in high school, he was offered an internship at Merrill Lynch, which was the premier stockbroker in the world at the time. They needed someone to write some simple computer programs to help them process some mathematical models for their stock offerings and offered to pay Saito to do so.
Saito took the job and spent his Saturdays going over complicated financial calculations with the stockbrokers, who would often check his work and ask for refinements in the computer programs. This was in the early days of personal computing, so Saito would arrive at the Burbank Merrill Lynch office with a stack of paper printouts and would spend the time going over the calculations with the stockbrokers, who would check his work by hand using their financial calculators. At the time, Saito had no idea who Merrill Lynch was, or why they needed these calculations, but as Saito explains in his book, he enjoyed the project, which he worked on for about two years and used the money he made to fuel his PC addiction.
From Dorm Room to a Real Office: William Saito’s launch of I/O Software
Saito describes in his book that, in the 1980s and very early days of the Internet, “simply being able to connect to another individual with the same digital addiction as yourself and type messages back and forth (“chat”) until 4:00 AM was a thrill.” Of course, given the slow internet of the time, these messages were extremely primitive by today’s standards, relying on plain text rather than the streamlined messaging services of today. Users could dial in to a bulletin-board system (BBS) to talk to friends and strangers. Saito even ran his own, somewhat popular, BBS at one point. With a BBS, you could reach out to others on the network to chat with people around the world. Of course, Saito says, one had to be careful not to get too addicted or the long-distance bills for the phone line “would cost more than your father’s car.” Yikes!
William Saito’s first explorations in the computing world were related to his love for BBS. He began to work out of his dorm room at the University of California, Riverside, for various Japanese companies, translating software to Japanese. A shareware program called ProComm worked with Microsoft and, in 1992, its advanced version, ProComm Plus for Windows, was the most popular software, clinching the #1 spot on PC Magazine’s list of best software. Saito and his nascent company worked with Datastorm Technologies, the company behind ProComm, on various projects.
The Japanese computer company NEC, who had heard about collaborations with Datastorm, approached Saito to see if he could create software similar to ProComm for their 9801 computer. Saito had been successful in translating other software to Japanese, so he took NEC up on their offer. The work that Saito had been doing for Japanese companies was done under the name of I/O Software, Inc., although the company didn’t have an office or anything formal like that. Soon, Japanese companies started to inquire about William Saito and I/O Software and request visits to the company’s nonexistent office.
On one occasion, NEC gave notice that they would visit in four days for a tour of I/O Software’s “office.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t one. Therefore, Saito and his friends did some creative problem-solving and got to work:
“We had to set up something that looked like an office, and we had to do it fast. First question: Where? Tas and I pulled out a map of southern California and measured with a ruler to find the exact halfway point between Harvey Mudd College and UCR. It turned out to be a little town called Rancho Cucamonga, which neither of us knew much about. The “management” of I/O Software quickly decided that the new “corporate headquarters” would be in Rancho Cucamonga. The next day, Friday, we headed over there to scout some decent-looking space in a typical office park. We found a place that looked about right and rented it on the spot.”
Over the weekend, William Saito and his college friends went to an office supply store and bought furniture and supplies to outfit the space and make it look like an office. Because they did not have money for new office computers, Saito and friends obtained some old computers from a university computer lab. As for staff, Saito convinced his friends to show up at the “office” on Monday and to bring some female friends to pretend to be office staff and look busy.
Amazingly, Saito’s plan worked like a charm. NEC arrived, toured the office space that the nascent I/O Software, Inc. had put together over the weekend, and “were impressed to see rows of people hard at work at computer terminals, people talking on phones, programmers conferring with each other in little ad hoc meetings, and so on. I had to admit, given just a quick walk-thru, if you didn’t look too closely at anything, it could pass for a software company.”
Because the visit went so well, Saito and his friends decided to continue to rent out that office and make it the company’s headquarters. Many other Japanese companies wanted to visit America and learn about their best technologies and Saito obliged. This helped the new I/O Software, Inc., with its brand-new headquarters, make waves in the software world.
A College CEO
Throughout the remainder of his college career, despite being in an advanced pre-med program, William Saito was the CEO of I/O Software, Inc. – a rare distinction among college students. Strangely, he did not talk about it with his college friends. Saito had entered college a year early due to completing high school in just three years, so he was younger than most of his peers. “I was uncool in a number of ways, principally with the women on campus,” Saito writes in his book.
“On the rare occasions when I went to dances or parties, it became obvious that I had “UNCOOL” printed on my forehead, and girls would stay clear.” Being single in college helped him save his time, money, and attention on other things, such as making I/O more successful. Because Saito was a young tech CEO, and because he was able to buy and sell computers to make some extra cash, he was able to purchase the latest technologies for his dorm room in college. This included a “state-of-the-art” PC, laser printer (in a time when most printers were the noisy and slow dot matrix printers), scanner, and fax machine, among other high-tech items.
Perhaps thanks to his access to high-tech computing tools, William Saito also published his own newspaper in college. The Tammany Times was a popular underground newspaper at UC Riverside that Saito describes as “part Twitter, part WikiLeaks, and part Facebook of its day, telling people what was really going on around the school every week, posting information from the editor-in-chief (me) as well as letters and articles from people who wanted to communicate via that unofficial medium.”
Innovating in the Biometric Software Sphere
After Saito graduated from college, he decided to dedicate his efforts full-time to working on his projects with I/O. Working with Sony is what ultimately led to the acquisition of I/O by Microsoft in the early 2000s. Sony approached I/O Software to help develop a new product that integrated biometric data. One day, after too many beers in a Japanese bar in Shinagawa with some Sony engineers at a brainstorming session, Saito asked, “What about fingerprinting?” He paused. “You know, like fingerprint recognition. We have this small-format, high-resolution camera. Why can’t we modify the lens, you know, give it a short fixed focal point, light up a transparent surface at that fixed distance from the lens, and take a picture of someone’s fingerprint? Then all we’d have to do is tie in some pattern-matching software, and we’d have portable fingerprint-recognition-in-a-box.”
Sony liked this idea of doing fingerprint recognition and wanted to use it for office door locks, but Saito convinced them that fingerprint recognition could also be used as a security control on computers. At this time, in the 1990s, Sony had yet to enter the computer space, and they were initially reluctant because they were still primarily focused on their tech products such as televisions, radios, and, of course, the now-discontinued Sony Walkman series of cassette and DVD players. However, they soon warmed up to Saito’s idea.
Once Saito was back in California, he got to work on the development for a PC-based thumbprint scanner. Although the technology existed at the time, and fingerprint scanners also existed, a software-based fingerprint scanner was an extremely novel and exciting concept in the tech world. However, conceptualizing such a scanner was a formidable challenge. Saito’s idea was to use a camera to capture the fingerprint and then develop software to be able to read and identify it. In his book, William Saito details the process of working with Sony, who had been in the hardware space, to develop this new and innovative software.
The challenge in this sphere at the time was that the sheer amount of data contained in a single fingerprint made comparing fingerprints to millions or even billions of other images simply impossible. Therefore, I/O developed a way to extract the main features from the fingerprint and examine only those details, to reduce the complexity of the information contained in each individual print. This not only simplified the recognition process but made the processing time for the print much faster.
The people at Sony developed a small, portable, and quiet fingerprint scanner with the I/O recognition software and, thanks to a member of the Sony team who loved dogs, the fingerprint scanner named Puppy was born. Saito’s fingerprint scanner was a massive success. Ernst and Young awarded William Saito the 1997 Entrepreneur of the Year award for this invention which paved the way for biometric data collection software, such as the thumbprint scanners used in most smartphones today.
As William Saito explains, the collaboration with Sony boosted I/O’s reputation as a security company. Soon, the company had cracked every software “lock” available commercially and became experts in encryption. The success of this project ultimately led to the acquisition of I/O by Microsoft in the early 2000s.