Kewney: Silicon Fen is strewn with smoke, mirrors

Get a grip, shall we?

Let's take a deep breath, and get some perspective. Yes, it's very, very nice to know that Microsoft is thinking seriously about spending some of its R&D money on Cambridge-based technology, maybe even setting up a centre there.

That said, what is all the excitement really about? How did this story make the front page of the Daily Telegraph?

The suggestion is that this will establish a new 'Silicon Fen', which will rival the west coast of California's Silicon Valley. The suggestion can only be entertained for a microsecond, and only by an idiot who has never been to the US, never mind California.

For a start, unless you know something about the silicon industry, it is literally impossible to conceive how massive the infrastructure of the San Francisco Bay Area is. We're not just talking about huge Pentium foundries in Santa Clara, or Apple, or Hewlett-Packard's innumerable plants, or the Suns, NetManages, and other famous names: we're talking about a community. And with a community, you get specialist community services.

For example, in Chinatown, you can buy 28 varieties of rice noodles, live fish, probably live frogs; fresh ginger, dried mushrooms that don't look remotely like mushrooms, and spices for which there probably exists no English spelling. In Chinatown, these things are in constant demand; elsewhere, they can't be stocked. They'd go bad before you finished explaining what they were, never mind how to cook them.

Similarly, there are things for sale on the shelf of the local standard computer stores in Sunnyvale: items that aren't even in the catalogues of specialist electronics mail-order companies outside California. Tools for fitting ball-contact chip holders back together; small air-filter plants for fixing hard disk drives in, oddly-named and out of production low-power Schottky TTL 7-series gates and buffers, even incredible items like computer memory core re-winding tools. Move to Sioux City, and you have to phone friends in Fremont and plead with them to visit, bringing them in hand baggage; there's nowhere else you can find them. Move to London, and you can forget it; you'd probably get them impounded by Security if you put them in your pocket.

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