by Niall Douglas in association with NamesFacesPlaces
=> Return to Part 1
But what happened to cause Acorn's decline? For sure, mismanagement played a part but I think it was mostly because Acorn failed to take the technological lead after the early 90's. As the Intel & Microsoft coalition began to dominate, together they drove forward technological innovation at both the hardware and software level - taking ideas off other platforms and packaging them in a cheap familiar mass-market form. This process continues to this day.
Indigenous IT companies like Acorn began to play catch up instead of leader, thus sucking R&D time ever further in the name of "being compatible" with the latest standards as well as paying large IP (Intellectual Property) fees to US companies. As their products became more and more like a PC, there was less and less reason to pay the extra for an Acorn box. I know that I myself bought my first PC when I saw the first decent popular OS, Windows NT 4 working (I wouldn't work with 9x or DOS on principle) and I know countless other professionals also did.
With that, we would from now on buy almost all our hardware and software licensed by US multinationals.
Obviously, we Europeans adapted to the situation. The first was in mobile embedded computing whereby by being quicker off the mark, we quickly cornered the then emerging mobile phone and PDA markets. The second was in the widespread popular adoption of "alternative" operating systems, such as FreeBSD and Linux which are more prevalent in continental Europe than in the UK. The third was the creation of a number of cheap clones of US multinational software such as AutoCAD, CorelDRAW and PhotoShop among others.
What is important to note is that while the UK IT industry lost much of its focus and became a jack-of-all-trades to the highest bidder, European IT took a very distinct direction indeed - by becoming the majority part in the GNU ideology, it has become the No. 1 competitor to US IT multinationals. US business was not slow to begin the process of combating its newfound major competitor and its actions in this regard are what this series of articles are about - because instead of mostly competing on technological grounds as was traditionally done, the US multinationals are now using every legal trick in the book to finish off the job.
What is especially important for the UK industry is that in the last ten years, we have gone from being among the leaders to playing second-fiddle. With Psion wrapping up development on its EPOC OS, to my knowledge there is no longer any cutting-edge work being done on UK-originated operating systems (SymbianOS is nearing its death knell). To put it another way, we are now en-mass following either European-led or US-led technological progress, despite containing over half the European IT industry.
Just think for a moment if say Acorn had concentrated on advancing RISC-OS in its own unique direction (ARM Ltd. would have taken care of the hardware). We could now have a third major option between Unix and NT and perhaps Apple might have used RISC-OS for Mac OS X instead of FreeBSD? My point is that creating intellectual property gives you power, and using someone else's IP means you give power to them.
While we are now followers instead of leaders and our IT industry is a service industry (selling our abilities to work on "common" tasks), I think few would complain. While it is a shame, we are all making good money and surely the good times will continue?
In this confidence, I believe we are gravely mistaken. When we follow instead of creating our own niches, we will inevitably come to compete solely against the third world with its massive supply of cheap labour. As noted by contractoruk (here and here), the newly industrialised countries are busy training their young in IT skills and for grunt-work IT, they will always beat us. Any service industry can only survive in the long-term if it can do something no one else can or else do the same thing cheaper - and the latter is not available to us.
However, the ability to do something no one else can itself is being quickly eroded - silently, quietly and almost without protest in the UK. While the French, Dutch, German, Belgium & Swedish IT industries are vigorously fighting for our lives, the UK with its majority of the industry sits doing practically nothing.
These series of articles are intended to show exactly what we will lose if we do not fight and win. If we lose, we will be irrevocably and permanently incapacitated much further over what we already are. I hope you will agree.
25th September 2002