UK IT Industry Under New Emerging Threat

by Niall Douglas in association with NamesFacesPlaces


This is the first of a series of articles about upcoming threats to our industry - not just to the IT contracting industry, but to any part of IT which is indigenous to Europe and most specifically the United Kingdom, which is in my opinion the most vulnerable of the IT industries within the EU.

As an introduction, I should like to explain my own perspective on the short history of our industry, and why we have failed to learn from the terrible mistakes of the past which have already left us a pale shadow of what we could have been - and the moves currently in motion by our competitors to finally suffocate any chance we will ever have for the foreseeable future. While I shall focus on the direct effects of these coming changes on us, there are further and even more worrying ramifications for our culture and society which I shall also address briefly in this series.

Before I start, I'll issue now my apologies for any glaring oversights. I have simplified things considerably at the expense of detail but hopefully not accuracy. My aim is to get the point across.

A short history of UK IT

Modern IT began in the early 80s with a surge of popular interest in home computing. A number of UK companies such as Amstrad, Sinclair and Acorn sprang up to meet the need but by the late-80's it was becoming increasingly clear that the future lay in IBM compatibles - nevertheless, at that time you only considered a boring IBM compatible for spreadsheets and the like and something more fun & appropriate for teaching purposes, games and other non-work & home use.

However, things were on the move and US multinationals Intel, IBM and Microsoft had a vision where their products would be the centre of all computing in the world. Within their own market they went after Commodore (the maker of the famous Amiga), Atari & Apple among others and increasingly it became a battle between merely Microsoft and IBM on the software front (which after Windows 3.0 Microsoft was clearly winning) and IBM and Intel on the hardware front (the popular adoption of PCI over micro-channel I think was the turning point). The technically superior OS2/Warp from IBM could have changed everything (much of its API is awfully similar to that of NT's for many interesting historical reasons), but bumbling mismanagement of its launch combined with an excellent misinformative PR campaign by Microsoft for Windows 95 sealed the issue shut forever.

Now we all know this, it's common lore. But because the story is told almost exclusively from a US standpoint, Europeans rarely realise that with the increasing emergence of US internal dominance, you can clearly correlate an inversely corresponding decline in our own indigenous IT industry. The reason why is very simple - as more time was freed up from domestic battles, so the battle for worldwide domination could receive more attention.

A case in point: Acorn Computers Ltd.

Out of all those early 80's startups, perhaps Acorn was the jewel in the UK crown. Amstrad moved quickly into IBM-compatible manufacture and Sinclair simply stopped, but Acorn carried on producing its unique computers up until as recently as 1998. Initially famous and rich from the success of the BBC Micro, it invested in the creation of a unique RISC chip now world famous - the ARM microprocessor - and despite some serious mismanagement & wasting of money, in 1990 it had not only some of the finest hardware in any computer, it also had RISC-OS - the last general purpose all hand-written assembler operating system ever written - which was a very competent & unique solution indeed. Things in theory couldn't have been more promising.

However, ARM-based Acorn machines only ever were popular in the UK - their appeal never stretched into Europe. By the time Acorn had produced a multi-language variant of RISC-OS, the GNU-based Linux revolution was already making its presence felt in continental Europe - a free clone of Unix which ran best on cheap second- or third-hand 8086 boxes.

=> Go to part 2