How the UK lost business computing

Once our cup of tea but never a piece of cake - ask the baker...
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor

Once our cup of tea but never a piece of cake - ask the baker...

Computing in the UK isn't what it used to be. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing, only we're hinting at a time when business computing was being trail-blazed in Blighty. You can call this era - 50 years back - 'the good old days', a time when what would ultimately be a trillion dollar global industry was run by an English teashop company called J Lyons. In the time since the first business application ran on the teashop's tailor made computer - used for a weekly perusal of the bakery's activities in November 1951 - a few things have changed. For one, technical excellence is spread around world, with a few notable pockets of development. And the industry changes quickly. Consider the current round of downsizing, preceded by fears in the recent past that dot-coms would wipe the floor with fuddy-duddy bricks and mortar firms. But 50 years ago, we've been told today, it was widely assumed the UK - the J Lyons and the like - had a three year lead on US competition. That's not much, especially given the rate of change, but why, culturally do experts think we shrunk back? It seems Brits, and to a large degree our European neighbours, hesitate. We cogitate. We discuss. And we deliberate while twiddling thumbs and um-ing and ah-ing. We don't pounce on new ideas, at least not enough. Can you picture the boardroom, replete with plate of biscuits and cup of tea (recurring motif that tea) and execs discussing matters endlessly and to little affect? It isn't hard. US organisations have proven themselves to be market leaders because they take on new ideas and act. Sure, they invariably make daft mistakes but they learn along the way. The future for computing in the UK is by no means dire, and in many areas is quite bright. As with the quality of our filmmakers or bankers, UK technical excellence is renowned around the world. But how much are we talking indigenous business successes? There will be more firsts, and we may just be claiming them. It's hard to stay at the vanguard though - especially when you're British.
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