By Richard Sharpe

December 2022

Working on the history of the IT sector I often get a feeling of deja vu, or even worse, to quote Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again.

Take this headline from The Times: “UK ‘falling behind’ on microchips”.

It could have been published in the mid 1970s when the US chip companies Intel, Motorola and others were taking over the world with their microprocessors.    Ferranti and Plessey among others were being hard pressed by this US competition.

Or it could have been published  in the mid 1980s when the Alvey initiative was being created in the UK as a strategic computing initiative to achieve the fifth generation.

But in fact it was published only weeks ago on Monday November 28 2022.  The subheading is “Fears raised over lack of government strategy”.   The government has been criticised by a Commons select committee for failing to develop a strategy to ensure “microchips” are available for UK industry.

If the government takes this criticism seriously and devises a strategy what does the archive tell us such a strategy look like?

Here are just five things suggested by the experience of those contributing to the archive.

1 Don’t make it: design it

ARM is the classic example of this.  Sir Robin Saxby was CEO and devised its successful business plan:  “Apple were thinking of investing [in ARM]. VLSI were thinking of investing. But Apple wouldn’t put the money on the table unless they [ARM] had found a chief executive. And I was a name, so I went and had a chat. And my chat was, how are we going to make this company work? And one of the jokes, I said, ‘We’ll make chips over my dead body.’ And one of the other jokes is, ‘I’m still alive, and ARM doesn’t make chips.’ “

2 Get government, industry and academics to work together

The VLSI chip programme of Alvey was not a great success: it was well behind the international competition.  But there was a positive outcome, according to Alastair Macdonald, a senior civil servant at the time.   “Looking back on it, I think there was a cultural gain from Alvey which was that for the first time in many disciplines, and certainly in IT, the three partners of, of government, industry and academe, working together as teams, was a very powerful and positive output from Alvey.”

Dr Timothy Walker, part of the Alvey directorate, echoes this:  “The long term effects of Alvey, which would not have been apparent when it was still going on, was the long term effects of getting university and industry to work together.”

3 Go with the flow of the technology

The “microchip industry has its “drumbeat” of doubling density every two years, fulfilling Moore’s law,  Go with it and keep up.  As Malcolm Penn told the archive:  “Being able to double the complexity every two years is a given…that is what we’re able to do…It took a certain degree of risk and analytical mind to say, hey, do you know what this [Moore’s law] means, it means we can do this? That was quite visionary, but to actually then turn it into the-the orchestra leader, the drum major, whatever you want to call it, I think industry did that it did it by its own accord and it became, hey, this is what we’ve got to do. We know in two years’ time, we’ve got to be here, let’s all march towards that goal. And it became self-fulfilling.”  The Alvey programme failed to do this

4 Be lucky and find the “killer app”

ARM came along just at the right time to provide the processing power for smartphones.  Again Sir Robin:  “Nokia changed the phone industry. And I have TI to thank as well. It was Nokia, Texas Instruments and ARM were working together, that really invented the first smartphone. So that, that was the start of it. And, everybody contributed, and all contributing what they’re good at, right. And, and it was a team result, and of course Nokia, when they launched the 6110, they were probably number three in mobile phones to Motorola and Ericsson, they took off. And the particular thing that helped us there was, Nokia launched their phone in about 1997; we went public in 1998, and we listed on Nasdaq and London, and because everybody knew who Nokia was, when we were talking to shareholders, it gave us credibility.”

5 Having set it up, back it fully

In the later 1970s the UK government set up an enterprise board to invest in UK technology.  One venture was a semiconductor company called Inmos, co-founded by Iann Barron.  He told the archive: “Inmos was an incredibly successful company. There was only one thing wrong with it, which was Mrs Thatcher. She hated Inmos, because, she thought that it had been created by the Labour Party, and specifically by Tony Benn, and therefore, it was not acceptable at all. And she really made our life impossible by, all sorts of things, publicity in Parliament and things like that. It was all adverse, saying how bad the company was. The company they owned, or were investing in, and they were actively bad-mouthing it. And that made it, made it pretty hard for us.”

That might have been hard: how much harder to create a microchip strategy now?









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