British tech: the media eye view
8th May 2011 | 12:30
UK journalists pontificate on the tech scene
British tech: the media eye view
Although the UK's technology industry may be suffering from an image problem, a seeming lacklustre approach and a dip in innovation, there's never been a cooler time to be a technology journalist in the UK.
It's all because of you, dear reader - you just love technology. And these days, it's not just you but your iPad-toting mum, your BlackBerry obsessed niece, your once-net-phobic uncle and your cat which probably has a little webcam on its collar and its own YouTube channel too.
And boy do we love telling you about the newest and greatest tech; although our neighbours across the pond tend to get better access, we have a brilliant tech media community in the UK. This is the side that you don't get to see so much; while we're competitors by day, we're pals by night – well, mostly.
So, who better to talk to about British tech than the people who spend their days sifting through the press releases, chatting with manufacturers and bringing you the big news?
The UK technology journalists are a varied bunch. Rory Cellan-Jones is a man whose voice you'll recognise from the radio, whose open and trustworthy face you probably know from the news and whose dog you'll almost definitely know from Twitter – he's the BBC's technology correspondent.
"There are two sides to British technology today," he says. "There's the traditional side, things like engineering and manufacturing, which has definitely struggled over the past twenty years.
"Then there's the new media side; the dotcoms, software makers and start-ups. We don't look great compared with Silicon Valley; but then again, no one does."
Given that the UK is responsible for so many great technological inventions, it's really a shame that the US has swept in and taken over with its domineering Silicon Valley and a can-do, will-do attitude. Stuart Miles, founder and editor of tech site Pocket-Lint.com reckons this is down to the reserved British nature.
"Silicon Valley companies are very good at working together to promote themselves; there's a lot of backslapping that goes on over there and it creates what we call a distortion field, subsequently giving some quite mediocre tech instant success.
"That promotion can make or break you – but in the UK companies tend to be more reserved and very competitive against each other. There's none of that back-slapping which is why attempts to recreate Silicon Valley in Shoreditch – Silicon Roundabout etc. – aren't working."
Cellan-Jones isn't convinced by the Silicon Roundabout phenomenon either: "I'm sceptical about the East London set; despite the buzz about the Silicon Roundabout and what's going on there, it's small-scale. A few guys in a garage, really."
Although British companies might not be so quick to reward impressive work from competitors, Kat Hannaford, UK contributing editor for Gizmodo, argues that there's a lot of support for home-grown tech from the UK public.
"Call it British eccentricity if you will, but there's a real sense of supporting British companies and rewarding the forward-thinkers here. Likewise, lambasting those who rest on their laurels and simply churn out the same old tired iAccessory year after year," she said.
Back to basics
After all our years of inventing the television, the telephone, the computer and the internet, Hannaford reckons Britain should be looking to the technology innards for where British innovation is headed now.
"After years of the home audio industry stealing headlines for British innovation, we're beginning to see a shift to the technology less tangible -- specifically, apps, software and chips.
"Some of the breakaway apps on the various platforms have come from British soil - Shazam being one of them - along with multimillion-selling games from the likes of Rockstar, Criterion and Rare."
There's also a burgeoning community of tech companies based in Cambridge that shouldn't be ignored. Cellan-Jones remembers the early days, saying, "It'd be wrong to overlook the Cambridge cluster, which is only now really reaching critical mass.
"Twenty years ago people were talking about the Cambridge phenomenon and saying that it just needs a company worth at least £3 billion to make it; well, now it has several companies worth that and more – ARM, Cambridge Radio… so it's beginning to happen there."
Indeed, ARM has come up whenever we've talked to industry insiders about the future of British tech.
When asked which British tech company he most admired, Cellan-Jones didn't hesitate: "ARM. I've gotta say it; it's proved its value, not sold out and all the time showing innovation and endurance."
In other words, ARM has applied a bit of elbow grease, shown a stiff upper lip and relied on the healing powers of a nice cup of tea when times have been hard, if you like your processors with a healthy does of British cliché.
Miles also cites ARM as his top British tech company: "I'd say the company that's been most influential during my career is ARM; it's been instrumental in creating the technology we use today."
"With ARM rumoured to be supplying the next iPhone with its asskickin' chipset, British silicon is in huge demand," adds Hannaford, pointing out that things look set to get better and better for the chip company.
But although ARM is proving the leading light in terms of one quite specific area of the technological ecosystem, others are forging ahead and looking way into the future with their ideas and ideals.
"You've got to admire Richard Branson and what he's doing with Virgin Galactic; he's really looking at the next frontier," said Miles. Indeed, Virgin Galactic is looking to the final frontier and after decades of the US and Russia battling it out for our skies, having a Briton spearheading the consumer-space-travel campaign is quite something, despite the fact that much of the actual action will take place in the US.
"With Virgin Galactic, Branson isn't doing what most companies do and looking at the next five years; he's investing in the next 50."
British tech: it's all about you
You love it
The one thing that everyone agrees on is that the appetite for technology has grown and grown in Britain over the past few years. Where once it was the realm of nerds and geeks, microserfs and code monkeys, technology is now everywhere you look.
"Over the eight years we've been running, Pocket-Lint has grown despite there being more tech players. The only conclusion to draw is that interest in technology is growing – which you can plainly see from the growing attention from the mainstream media. There's definitely an appetite for everything from videogames to smartphones."
"There's been a change in the culture towards starting businesses," adds Cellan-Jones. "Particularly post the dotcom bubble in the UK. There's certainly a better climate for entrepreneurship and a lot of excitement around tech."
But before you start cracking out the bunting, he concluded:
"It's the slightly fluffy side of tech that we're excited about here while engineers struggle to get recognition.
"We're great at the fluffy creative marketing; but not so much at the science and engineering business."
While we're not going to suggest you buy your nearest tech engineer a drink (although that would be awfully good of you, old sport), it wouldn't hurt to support British tech and the wonderfully clever people behind it where you can; after all, TechRadar's Brit Week has hopefully shown that there's plenty to be excited about.