If you’d asked most hippies in the swinging sixties to give an example of software, the chances are they would have waved their kaftans in a whirl of weed and a flurry of flora.They weren’t to know that flower power wasn’t the only concept laying its scent both sides of the Atlantic at that time. Blossoming in the hothouses of Cambridge University and in the fertile mind of Clive Sinclair and others were the seeds of computer innovation.
Sinclair’s early exploits from 1961 onwards and the advent of CADCentre within the university in the early ’60s comfortably pre-dated the birth of Acorn Computers in 1978. As did the first spin-out from the university’s Computer Laboratory – Media Dynamics Ltd in 1968 – the first brainchild in a family of 188 so far.
Most importantly, a birthright had been established by a burgeoning Cambridge software community that would spawn a rich and lasting legacy. Acorn would give birth to ARM, CADCentre to AVEVA. LaserScan would be a pioneer at the new Cambridge Science Park at the dawn of the ’70s and find a new lease of life as 1Spatial in the 21st Century.
Although most Cambridge software pioneers believe the city has never been afforded full credit for its innovation and commercial relevance in the field, the legacy endures. Fourteen of the 30 companies that have made the final shortlist in Business Weekly’s Awards are hi-tech with software at their core. That puts into perspective the new wave of technology clusters: The next highest representation comes from BioMedTech – nine out of 30; then CleanTech seven out of 30 and wireless with half a dozen.
Among the new generation, Bromium – which has employed almost 30 people while remaining in stealth mode – is seen by many sound judges as a bridge between the legacy software plays of halcyon hacking years and a new era of glory for Cambridge technology.
The founders established a track record with XenSource, which was bought by Citrix. Bromium’s new game-changing technology is primed to crush hackers and cyber-saboteurs – and net another fortune for the founders.
All around the Cambridge cluster, nerds in nervecentres, geeks in ghettos and hackers in huddles are helping to shape the world we live and work in.
The launch of Raspberry Pi this week doesn’t so much complete a virtuous software circle as create a model for concentric circles that cascade and coalesce like ripples in a stream of innovation.
The tiny Raspberry Pi computer draws inspiration from the BBC Micro that made it all happen for Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser at Acorn. It could inspire millions of youngsters to take up computer science and become micro men and women in FutureWorld.
Inventor Eben Upton is already seeing enormous interest in Raspberry Pi from Brazil and Russia and says demand from the developing world has come as a pleasant surprise.
Cambridge technology entrepreneur Charles Cotton, who is chair of Cambridge-California play Solarflare and new wireless darling Neul, among other tech businesses, notes that software has “played a pivotal role in the development of the Cambridge Phenomenon.”
AVEVA has morphed a long way from its CADCentre roots: It now employs around 1,000 people in 40 countries and has a market cap of more than £1 billion. CEO Richard Longdon is now roadmapping further global expansion and is likely to oversee the company’s change of HQ from Cambridge to somewhere more tax and business friendly, although the R & D brains will stay in the city.
Cotton says: “Along the way, there have been some significant exits for Cambridge software companies. Geneva Technology, founded by Steve Edwards and Ros Smith in 1989, recruited Stephen Thomas as CEO in 1998 and sold to Convergys for around $700M three years later.
“XenSource, co-founded by Ian Pratt in 2003, sold to Citrix in 2007 for $500M. Just last year Autonomy, founded by Mike Lynch in 1996, was acquired by HP for $10 billion.
“The influence of the University of Cambridge Computer Labs on the software scene continues to be huge. Most of the 188 companies founded by Computer Lab staff and graduates have a significant software component to their products and services.
“Raspberry Pi, a low cost programming platform initiative by David Braben and Jack Lang, aims to keep Cambridge at the forefront of software development by encouraging teenagers to get the programming bug like many successful entrepreneurs did with their Sinclair and Acorn computers in the 1980s. It’s good to see that Hackathons are now a regular part of the Cambridge scene.
“Many of the software organisations in Cambridge, like AVEVA, Brady Systems Bango, i2 and RealVNC are successful business-to-business companies. But there is another side to the Cambridge software scene – games.
“Three of the UK’s most successful games companies are based here – Frontier who developed one of the first games for Microsoft’s Kinect controller for the Xbox 360, Jagex Games Studio and Ninja Theory and are recruiting heavily.
“In response to the rising importance of gaming companies, Anglia Ruskin University have launched degrees in computer gaming technology and computer games and visual effects. ARU and others sponsor Brains Eden, an annual event which brings students, companies and academics together and includes a competition to develop a new game in 24 hours.”
Software engineering excellence comes wrapped in many cloaks these days as advanced technology is brokered into a whole new range of cutting-edge products and clusters.
Some of the early Cambridge pioneers believe they would have thrived had they moved to Silicon Valley from the off. Among them was Robert Booth of Tadpole Technology, the Cambridge Science Park company that developed SparcBook – the world’s first laptop workstation.
Booth says: “Tadpole was really good at putting big power into small packages. It was also extremely good at building relationships with leading edge component suppliers. We always got access to the latest and greatest global giants and indirectly our software enabled them to showcase their new products.
“Our customers were also all world-class companies and were continuously surprised by how much power we could put into their products. Our software, whether embedded in ASIC’s or in our operating systems, was the glue that held their offering together.
“Tadpole always had brilliant software engineers and the IBMs of the world loved us. We had major market validity. And by modern standards, the £2m development cost of the SparcBook was so small. SparcBook and its successors took us from a very modest turnover to £7m or £8m and in our heyday we hit £26m.
“Where we went wrong was producing the world’s first Pentium Notebook under our own label; we didn’t stick to our strengths of building and maintaining OEM relationships with the big players and concentrating on giving them state-of-the-art software and hardware that was marketed with their own muscle. We tried to do it all alone.
“The commoditised PC market was a whole new area for us and the big corporate purchasers didn’t feel they could risk their careers by partnering a little company from Cambridge UK and preferred to stick with less impressive but safe offerings from the likes of IBM and Toshiba. We took a big hit and ended up writing off £10m of inventory.
“If we had been based in California there would have been no question of us securing long term and sustainable success because they are brilliant there at believing in the big dream and keeping it alive. Their attitude was that if the core technology was market leading and given appropriate energy, commercial success would take care of itself; the funding necessary to make that happen was implicit in the equation.
“Faced with this scenario of being in the wrong geographical location as far as the major corporate purchasers were concerned, we should have continued our formula of partnering with them and not tried to compete in an area where we had no real pedigree.
“Looking back, it is a real shame, because we had access to all the major players’ proprietorial systems and within those Tadpole’s unique comb-ination of hardware and software was the hidden gem. But this view is delivered with the benefit of hindsight: the reality is that, unlike ARM and CSR in the modern era, when Tadpole was at the height of its powers there was no template, no path we could follow.
“We were the pioneers and we were operating in a different climate then. Cambridge wasn’t then internationally renowned as a technology Mecca, as it is now. To the Americans it was a small blob on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Acorn launched the BBC Micro Model in 1981: It went on to spin out chip companies ARM, now with a market cap of around £7.7bn, and Element 14 which also spawned new ventures. Even now the Acorn computer lives on.
Co-founder Hermann Hauser says: “I think people misunderstand what is happening in high technology and the brilliant software engineering capability that exists here in Cambridge.
“We have a fantastic pool of software talent and their influence has expanded into networks. The Acorn legacy could be found in ARM, Element 14, Broadcom, Virata, CSR and many others. More to the point, all the major successes around Cambridge are software successes.
“These companies all employ more software engineers than hardware specialists. Even though Acorn’s BBC Micro was a hardware product we always had more software engineers working on it than hardware equivalents.
“This was true in most of what we did. Acorn never strayed from a systems approach, so had hardware capability – but the software expertise was always paramount in the R & D process.”
Unipalm, which morphed through several upwards mergers into UUNET and WorldCom, saw its name kept alive up until recently when it changed its identity to Computerlinks; its UK sales operation remains in Newmarket.
The Pipex technology Unipalm developed (as Britain’s most successful ISP) to revolutionise the internet is a globally recognised brand. Peter Dawe, who co-founded the original Unipalm business and amassed a fortune from its sale to UUNET, is still creating new technology ventures.
The continuing strength of Cambridge’s software community looks likely to play a leading role in product development globally as the hi-tech power base continues to change.
Recent reports in America show that the US is increasingly being forced to hitch its wagon to other countries’ brainpower. Of the 243,000 new jobs created in the States last month, precious few were in hi-tech; healthcare sector jobs created were dwarfed by massive cuts elsewhere in Big Pharma.
The US has also lost 28 per cent of its hi-tech manufacturing jobs over the last decade as the nation's rapidly shrinking lead in science and technology in the global marketplace was accompanied by a toll on US hi-tech jobs, according to the National Science Board. America has lost 687,000 hi-tech manufacturing jobs since 2000.
US multinational corporations are now creating R & D jobs overseas at an unprecedented rate; since 2004, about 85 per cent of R & D employment growth in US multinationals has been abroad. China has meanwhile become the world leader in high-technology trade and, for the first time, Asia matched the US in R & D investments at around $400 bn.
It’s no coincidence that major corporations in the three countries that account for over half the world’s R & D spend – the United States, China, and Japan – are the ones cruising Cambridge streets looking for the latest hot technologies.