The UK's leading hi-tech showplace is served by exactly one 64K Internet connection. I didn't have the heart to tell them there's more bandwidth in my den

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The Independent Culture
So I'm sitting at dinner with the Sheriff of Nottingham, wondering about the future of technology in Great Britain. It's the kind of thing that only happens in the UK.

Normally, I'm more likely to be trying to talk a Santa Clara County deputy sheriff out of a speeding ticket along Silicon Valley's Interstate 280. Obviously, I've got some more explaining to do, officer.

This column actually started it all. Last year, I suggested that you all move faster to deregulate the phone system, and maybe scrap VAT on computers, as a way of sparking a hi-tech boom in the UK. That column resulted in an invitation to address the European Workforce Development Conference, which was held at the University of Nottingham the week before last. The Sheriff dropped in to give a speech, and we all went for a beer afterwards.

It's a long way to come, so I thought it would be a good idea to make a real trip out of it. My theme: British Innovation. Itinerary: London's Docklands, Greenwich, the Science Museum in Kensington, St John's Innovation Centre in Cambridge's "Silicon Fen", and Nottingham.

Greenwich's Royal Observatory calls to mind an era when England was in the forefront of technological innovation - as embodied in the British chronometers that made accurate global navigation possible. Taking the Docklands' robotic public transport part of the way, and then walking the footpath tunnel under the Thames to Greenwich, was both good fun and a metaphor for 20th-century Britain. Things start out great, but somehow you always wind up making the last half-mile on foot and in the dark.

Case in point: I dropped in at Zeus Technology Limited, a classic hi- tech startup, headquartered at the aforementioned St John's Innovation Centre, a very pleasant office building on the outskirts of Cambridge. Zeus consists of three very bright people in their twenties, a room full of serious hardware, an Internet connection and a heck of a good piece of Internet server software that routinely benchmarks as the world's fastest.

Damian Reeves and Adam Twiss hack the code while Bryan Amesbury writes the press releases, does the marketing plan and answers the phone. All three struggle with the normal business issues like supporting customers, paying the bills and positioning for the future in a market that changes daily. Nobody has a job title on their business card.

Most Silicon Valley startups would covet the nice office space - Silicon Valley real estate is so tight that one outfit I've heard of works out of the back of a dry cleaner's - but the envy would stop there. A Silicon Valley startup with a product like Zeus's - it outperforms the products of both Netscape and Microsoft - would already be planning the Initial Public Offering.

In California, their biggest problem would be dodging the venture capitalists' BMWs in the parking lot and hiring people fast enough to stay on their growth plan. But in Britain's leading-edge, hi-tech heart, a bank turned Zeus down for a pounds 5,000 loan even though they had a signed purchase order for many times that amount from a very large computer company. The bank did helpfully tell them that if they were in some other business - say, plastic screw-top bottle lids - they would easily qualify.

Another little problem is that the whole of St John's Innovation Centre - the UK's leading hi-tech showplace - is served by exactly one 64K Internet connection, which plays hell with testing the world's fastest Internet server, especially when you share that line with the rest of the building. I didn't have the heart to tell them there's more bandwidth in my den.

While Zeus is growing by paying their own way out of revenue, they could grow faster and compete better with access to capital so they could hire the engineers, marketers and support people needed to expand to their full potential. Zeus could be creating high-paying jobs, which would in turn would mean more customers for other businesses, like, say, banks.

But, what the hey? Give one startup a loan and, pretty soon, if Silicon Valley is any guide, you would have hundreds or thousands of them. They'd be putting up buildings, hiring people, generating tax revenue and possibly thrusting the UK into the forefront of the Information Age. Before you knew it, it would be hard to recruit good screw-top lid inspectors.

I was pondering this as I made my way to the European Workforce Development Conference, where the participants included professors, vice-chancellors, European Commissioners, managing directors and officials of every government stripe, including the Sheriff.

Just before going to Cambridge, I went to see Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No 2 at the Science Museum. Babbage's Difference Engines, and his later Analytical Engine, with its central processor, long-term storage, temporary memory and punch-card software, anticipated IBM's mainframes by some 130 years. Difference Engine No 2, it should be noted, was built in 1991 by the museum. Babbage, a Cambridge graduate, couldn't get the money to build the machine during his lifetime.

Britain could have led the world into computing a century ago, but the government cut funding, citing a lack of need for computers. Doron Swade, the Science Museum's computing curator, suggests it was both a case of the 19th century's "unsympathetic entrepreneurial climate" and the government's lack of vision.

Judging from Zeus Technologies' experience, not much has changed in 150 years.