Jane Wakefield: Why we need a slice of American pie

While Europeans are busy giggling at the American in the loud shirt, he and his countrymen have been busy building an industry to be proud of

Last week I reluctantly dragged myself away from my PC screen and into an airplane in search of adventure and enlightenment in foreign climes. I was to spend the week visiting high-tech firms in the legendary Silicon Valley (that is why no column appeared last week -- I would blame lack of Internet access but that would be a blatant lie.) In fact, if my week in the US taught me anything other than that Californians don't like smoking, it was that there is no lack of Internet access at all. It is, unfortunately, the old, old story of how much better the Americans do all things Internet compared to us.

It used to be that a trip to the States made you envious of the choice of fast food vendors Americans have. Now we have the fast food and there is a new reason to be jealous of the US. Our cousins across the pond have taken the Internet baseball and thrown it out of the ballpark while us poor old Brits are still putting our mits on.

There are three things to do in Silicon Valley -- get an IPO, get taken over or get your nails done. The last of these will only be necessary if the unthinkable happens and you go bust. Judging from the proliferation of nail shops and beauty parlours in the valley area there are a fair few people hoping the hard-working dotcommers will have some time on their hands in the near future.

They may be right -- not every start-up can have a success story attached to it -- but for now to think of failure in the tech vales of California is tantamount to blasphemy. Internet fever is still firmly raging in the US and shows no sign of abating. Ten new millionaires are made in the valley every day and the real competition is becoming how to show off your wealth in a place where Porsches are passé.

Joseph Kennedy is typical of the new breed of millionaire. Setting up networking firm Rapid City, he did pretty well when the start-up was taken over by Bay Networks. And he did even better when Bay Networks was taken over by Nortel. He had a car back then with a license plate reading GIGABIT. He has a new start-up now and a new license plate -- TERRABIT. Kennedy has the laid-back manner of someone who has already made his fortune and is just waiting to pick up the cheque. You can smell the money on these people.

US entrepreneurs are embracing the Internet in a way the would-be dotcommers in the UK can only dream of. Last Sunday was Superbowl Sunday -- a day when Americans consume vast quantities of junk food and are most likely to hit their spouses -- and the advertisers wanted the public to take notice of more than just the game. Nine out of eighteen of the sponsors were Web-based companies and the ad breaks were full of the latest online firms.

In Silicon Valley, worried CEOs can actually check their share prices as they fill their cars with petrol -- courtesy of a Web-enabled screen on pumps in selected gas stations. Fans of fast food can choose tracks from an online music site and get a free CD with their pizza.

Meanwhile in the UK, consumers and businesses alike are only just waking up to the potential of the Net. It seems we are destined to be the also-ran in the new Internet economy. It is true that the spirit of entrepreneuralism has always been greater in the land of the free -- where being big and brash and having big and brash dreams has made American look gauche next to their more sophisticated European cousins. But while Europeans are busy giggling at the American in the loud shirt, he and his countrymen have been busy building an industry to be proud of.

While the UK government likes to make soundbites about the UK being the best in the world for e-commerce, it seems unlikely to happen in the near future. What we need is for the chairmen of the boards to shake the cobwebs off their desks and replace them with the Web. We need the small businesses in this country to start believing in the Internet and start taking a risk on it. We need the government to lead the way, with Web sites that work and services that actually make everyday life easier. In Alaska users can register their cars online these days -- and that kind of concrete use of online is a whole lot better than the soundbites.

And finally, we need cheaper access to get people online. BT has to stop dragging its feet and introduce unmetered access for the mass market. Surftime, where unlimited Net use will cost around £35 is not good enough. It is also not quick enough -- it is not on offer until the spring -- and reaction even from subscription-based ISP has been lukewarm at best.

Competition in the local loop and between the telcos and cable guys in America has played a large part in getting affordable access out to the masses. The same spirit of competition is not yet in evidence in the UK and may not be until 2002 if BT gets its way. Oftel needs to speed up deregulation and give other operators access BT's wire so we can have real competition.

India, not known for its efficient rollout of high tech, is offering DSL services before the UK has any.

What does that say to you?

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