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Science

Britain's 'invisible' IT industry on show at CeBIT

Britain might be better known for chips that go with fish than those inside computers. This year, the UK is the official partner country at the 2014 Hanover CeBIT expo, offering it a chance to showcase its IT industry.

The names of UK technology giants might not trip off the tongue of the average consumer, like Apple from the US or Korea's Samsung do. But most people who own a mobile device will be carrying a piece of British technology around with them.

"All over the world people are interacting with an ARM-powered product every day," Stephen Pattison, vice president of public affairs at ARM Holdings told DW. The UK company designs low-energy microprocessors for mobile devices. The license to manufacture them is then sold to the companies that provide the computing power for mobile giants like Samsung and Apple. For ordinary people this is "invisible" technology, but it's crucial and it's hugely successful.

"We now have over one thousand companies in what we call our ecosystem, and they range from chip manufacturers to software people - through to those companies that manufacture the products we use every day," said Pattison. "This year we've just seen the great milestone of 50 billion chips having now gone into the market based on ARM design."

First computer was British

The UK's IT industry goes back more than 60 years. The world's first computer, capable of storing information, was made in Manchester in 1948. It was nicknamed "Baby" and can still be seen at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. It is as large as a van and weighs a ton, yet had the computing power of a simple calculator.

An image of a computer chip

Some 50 billion chips on the market are based on design from UK-based ARM

"Manchester made the breakthrough," said Bryan Mulholland, a retired computer scientist who now spends his days demonstrating how Baby works to museum visitors.

"A government minister saw the strategic significance of calculating at electronic speed, and he gave a local company the contract to make a production version. That was really the start of the IT business in Britain."

Less than 30 years later, what many consider to be the first personal computer also came out of the UK. The Altair 8800 made its debut in 1975, but soon the British IT sector was overtaken by the American behemoths of Apple and Microsoft, and the Asian giants later on.

The "self-depreciating" Brits

"We're very good at inventing things that no one else has thought of before. And that means that we've got companies now that provide services under the radar," said Mike Ryan, a Manchester-based IT advisor and futurologist.

"You'll be amazed at how much British technology goes into the devices that other countries make. We are quite self-deprecating as a race, we're not particularly good at waving that flag - like Americans are - how fantastic we are at doing things," he added. "But we're good at engineering, we are good at that under-the-body stuff - which actually makes things work."

Futurologist Mike Ryan

A lot of British tech goes into the devices that other countries make, says futurologist Mike Ryan

The success of ARM Holdings aside, the world is yet to see a Twitter, Facebook or Google equivalent coming out of Britain. But the British government has recognized the importance of the IT sector's growth potential, especially as the country is starting to recover from the economic downturn.

Late last year it announced millions of euros in funding to help innovative technology businesses grow.

Lack of funding

Yet many UK start-ups still struggle to find enough funding at home, and look abroad to get the right amount of money. One such company is DataSift, a London-based startup which analyzes social media input and sells information to global brands looking for improved insight into customer behavior.

"Every round of funding was all led by US firms," DataSift's Chief Product Officer Tim Baker told DW.

"It's a shame and disappointment that there isn't that same environment in the UK. It's not that there isn't money in the UK. There are UK venture capital firms, but most of their money is American."

Despite the lack of access to British money, the number of tech and digital companies in the London area increased by 76 percent between 2009 and 2012. Nearly 30 percent of new jobs in the capital are created in the technological and digital sector, which now employs almost 600,000 people in London alone.

A computer chip on a finger

CeBIT offers an opportunity for UK companies to get more visibility

CeBIT partner

The fact that the UK is this year's partner country for the massive CeBIT exhibition in Hanover, Germany, is further proof that the country is being recognized as a potential future IT giant.

For the UK, CeBIT is not only a unique opportunity to showcase the country's technology companies and to secure exports, it is a great chance to push itself as an investment location for foreign companies, too.

The British government says it also recognizes the need to train a future workforce for a growing IT industry, and has made computer coding compulsory in secondary schools from September.

The UK economy grew with 2.4 percent last year. The government says the IT sector is crucial to future growth, both in terms of jobs and exports. The decision to make computer coding obligatory in schools is testament to that, but the sector won't grow without more investment. Some of that money, UK exhibiters at CeBIT hope, could come at the end of this week's expo in Germany.

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