Gates visit highlights British IT failings

Experts say software talent is under-exploited
The visit to Britain last week of the world's richest man, Microsoft multi-billionaire Bill Gates, to inaugurate a new computer laboratory at Cambridge, will inject a much-needed boost into the still precarious UK software industry.

The visit of the Microsoft Don does not usher in a new golden age for British software and computer entrepreneurs, however. Rather, it highlights the problems standing in the way of converting Britain's tremendous software talent into a sector that can compete in the highly profitable global information technology industry.

During a two-day visit to the country - speaking to political and business leaders from Prime Minister Tony Blair on down - Gates repeatedly praised the research talent available in the UK, not only in Cambridge, but also in Scotland's Silicon Glen, as well as the more traditional Silicon triangle around Reading, Woking and Swindon.

In doing so, however, he focused attention on the dirty secret of British IT - its failure to keep pace with the trillion dollar industry of the US's Silicon Valley in California, and Microsoft's home base of Redmond, Seattle, as well as fast growing new centres of computing power like Budapest and Bombay.

The history of British information technology is littered with fallen idols, from Sir Clive Sinclair to Alan Sugar of the humbled Amstrad.

Government statistics say the computer software market and related services had sales of pounds 13.34bn in 1996, an increase of 16 per cent over 1995. Of this, a third was generated by retail spending, which is growing at approximately 12 per cent a year. The balance was spending by companies.

Most of the money spent in Britain on information technology, however, goes on products made by US and other foreign products. Home grown British technology takes only a small slice of the computing pie, especially in the personal computer market.

Besides this, the British market is small by global standards, and accounts for only a sixth of the Western European market - small beer by the standards of the US.

Does the Cambridge initiative mark a new beginning? What the new research laboratory will offer is the ability to mix research, entrepreneurial flare, and, when it is needed, interest from external capital.

On the research front, few would question the pedigree of the Gates initiative. Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician, was after all, the founder of modern computer theory - a tradition maintained by the computer sciences department.

Nor is entrepreneurial flair lacking - Cambridge already