Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of a great landmark of British engineering: on 6 August 1991, a young researcher from London working at European nuclear research centre CERN published the world’s first website using the first web browser on the first web server.
By inventing the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee created a tool that would change many aspects of our lives, from how we communicate and gather information to the way we shop and have fun. It helped bring the internet into public consciousness and shaped the way it developed – indeed many people still confuse the web and the internet.
But despite being invented by a Brit, the web quickly came to be dominated by American entrepreneurs and innovators. Think of a famous web company and it will likely have originated in the US: Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter. (The only British example I could think of was the Internet Movie Database – IMDB – and even that is now owned by Amazon.)
In fact Britain has lagged behind in general over the last two decades when it comes to the computer and electronics industries. The time when companies like Acorn and Amstrad were turning innovation into popular and lucrative products was over relatively quickly. Today we have no big electronics manufacturer to compete with Sony, Philips or Apple. ARM Holdings may have processors in 20 per cent of the world’s PCs and almost every brand of mobile phone you care to mention, but the company is the exception rather than the rule.
Video games represent one sector of the industry where Britain has punched above its weight over the last 20 years – Wimbledon-based Eidos created Tomb Raider and Lara Croft, arguably one of the most famous video game characters ever, while a significant cluster of firms has grown up around Dundee. But even here the industry has struggled recently, with most UK companies going under or being bought up by foreign publishers.
In a market where many other countries offer significant tax breaks to games developers, a debate is still going on between British industry and the Treasury over what support government can provide. George Osborne scrapped tax relief proposals shortly after the 2010 election and, despite recent plans for more R&D credits, industry bodies say they are struggling under the burden of HMRC.
For all this gloom, however, there might now have an opportunity to change the fortunes of the UK’s computer and electronics sector. The internet and how we use it are changing. The web might not be dead but the amount of time we spend on it looks only likely to decrease as more and more people buy smartphones and access the internet through dedicated applications (apps) – a quarter of adults and half of teenagers now own a smartphone, according to research published this week.
This cultural shift creates a new chance for British firms to innovate and for creative entrepreneurs to bring new ideas to the fore. Apps and smartphones provide a way for companies to develop software products and services at relatively low cost and put them in front of a large global audience with ease. If companies can find new ways to make the most of this rapidly growing market then tax breaks become less important.
What Britain would really benefit from though is a shift to more of a Silicon Valley way of thinking. Around San Jose in California are thousands of high-tech companies all striving to become the next Twitter or Intel. They have strong links to academia but a ruthlessly commercial focus. There are even Silicon Valley boot camps for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
An attempt to recreate such an environment in the UK is underway in East London. The area around Old Street has become known as Silicon Roundabout and the government hopes to see the area between there and the Olympic Park in Straford become a technology hub. Companies including BT, Vodafone, Cisco Systems, Facebook and Google have already committed to developing facilities in the area while Imperial, UCL and Loughborough universities have signed on as academic partners. And the Technology Strategy Board has launched a £1m competition for funding for digital entrepreneurs.
The web was and is an incredible tool, and we should be proud of being able to add Berners-Lee’s name to the likes of Babbage and Turing in the list of great British contributors to the world of computers. But digital technology is the fastest moving of them all, and unless we seize the initiative as it undergoes its current cycle of upheaval then we’ll find ourselves left behind once again.