If you ask me

We get an expert opinion on the technology framework for the UK; and what might have happened to the East German IT industry if the Berlin Wall hadn't come down?

Followers or leaders?

Last month, the Royal Academy of Engineering launched its report 'ICT for the UK's Future: The Implications of the Changing Nature of Information and Communications Technology'. The report lays out the stark choices open to the UK as our country struggles to emerge from recession. Do we have the collective strength of will to take bold actions including: enhancing the UK's IT infrastructure; recognising and addressing critical gaps in IT capability at all levels of society; and exploiting UK leadership in key technology areas?

The report highlights that ubiquitous broadband access is an absolute prerequisite for a modern knowledge-based economy. The report proposes an affordable way to achieve close to 100 per cent high-bandwidth cover by 2012.

Every school leaver should be an effective user of IT. The current programme, focusing on primary and secondary schools, is welcome. The resources must be delivered alongside teachers with relevant qualifications and adequate time to keep abreast of new developments. IT education has been confused with computer literacy and so has been ignored in the drive for STEM skills and capability.

The UK has already lost, or is in danger of losing, core IT skills underpinning business competitiveness. Development and maintenance of such skills are essential to the creation of a strong cadre of technicians to keep the 'virtual pipes' working for the UK economy.

Too often, the UK lacks adequate ICT competence in senior positions in government, industry, schools and institutions to support ICT-related project decision making and delivery. This lack of depth of understanding extends through middle management and needs addressing now.

The technical evolution of IT indicates that competitive leadership requires substantial infrastructure investment in technologies such as broadband and server farms. That investment will be stimulated in part by demand. While many SMEs recognise the value in participating, there are barriers such as distrust of outsourcing; unease with respect to security; unfamiliarity with government procurement practices; weak linkages between SMEs and universities; and software IP issues.

The culture around intellectual property and its exploitation in IT must change to support effective collaboration between universities, SMEs and international companies. The way IP is protected is often a barrier to innovation - stemming from the patenting of basic constructs in software being used as a weapon by big companies against other big companies. As a consequence, this creates a large barrier for an SME without a large patent portfolio. Further, university technology transfer offices are often overprotective and may hamper collaboration.

There is a substantial opportunity, and some indications of UK leadership, in ICT-related areas such as sensors, robust and reliable software, security and social/economic applications.

The report lays out clear actions required for both public and private sectors, describing success in terms of potential outcomes. We need 'action this day' if the UK is not to languish as a heritage theme park looking back to our glory days of innovation and success.

Professor Jim Norton is a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering working group that wrote 'ICT for the UK's Future' and chair of the IET's IT Sector Panel

IT comes tumbling down

What might have happened to the East German IT industry if the Berlin Wall hadn't fallen?

In the period leading up to the demolitions of November 1989, the GDR had been working - and spending - to establish credible microelectronics and computing industries; industries that it hoped would prove capable of showing not only that Comecon (the economic organisation of Eastern bloc states) could match the achievements of its Western counterparts, but also of breaking into their markets.

The leading light in the GDR's programme was the form of Carl Zeiss, with its microelectronics plant in Jena. At a ceremonial presentation in August 1989, GDR leader Eric Honecker was presented with the first 32-bit microprocessor to come out of Jena; a year earlier a similar ceremony marked production of Zeiss's first batch of 1Mb DRAM memory chips.

The GDR aspired to a role in global IT; this may sound deluded, but at the time the computer market was in a state of anything's-possible flux. The suggestion that IBM, say, would soon be struggling to maintain lower ranking against upstarts like Microsoft, Sun, and Compaq would have been bonkers.

The new Zeiss chips were initially destined for East German computer manufacturer Kombinat Robotron, that produced microcomputers (PCs), minicomputers (midrange platforms), and even mainframes reportedly based on IBM's System 360 range. As Paul Gannon recalls in his history 'Trojan Horses and National Champions', at the time Kombinat Robotron entertained hopes of developing a minicomputer range that would enable it to enter West European markets, and to promote East German software producers to other German-language markets.

Meanwhile, at a component level, the new Zeiss processor platforms would also feed into emerging ranges of computer-controlled machine tools, and other engineering products that could be sold abroad to earn foreign currency to finance future R&D. But this 1989 equivalent of a 'strategic roadmap' soon folded when the sledgehammers thudded into the Wall.

The collapse of barriers physical and regulatory meant that Eastern Europe could then anticipate buying Western computer technology direct, rather than local vendors producing ersatz equivalents.

East German competitiveness was further hobbled by the massive standing-start investment that had been required to get going in this sector - one that placed a huge drain on GDR's economy, swallowing, according to estimates, 14bn East German marks (about $4.3bn), or 20 per cent of the country's research funds. Gannon records that, for all its massive investments, by the time 1Mb DRAM chips were coming out of Kombinat Mikroelektronik's foundry, Far Eastern competitors such as Japan and Korea were close to bringing next-generation 4Mb DRAM processor to market.

As the last of the rubble was shovelled into skips, the dream of an East German Silicon Valley had also crumbled.

James Hayes

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