Link: Where are the British giants of cyberspace? Times Online. George Osbourne, the Conservative Shadow Chancellor is on a fact finding trip to Silicon Valley to find out why there isn't a British Google. He is concerned that not one of the leading internet companies is British, despite the fact that "the internet may have been invented by a Briton". (Look, don't blame me on that one, I'm just telling you what he said. I know it's nonsense, but there you go.) Anyway, to continue - he's not so much concerned about the fact that British dot-coms crashed and burned, but that not one of them has made it into the super league. Osbourne identifies that the broad danger here is that Britain will miss out on one of the fastest growing industries in the world and consequently will be unable to create a pool of talent and capital to become more competitive.
His suggestion is that British universities should be encouraged by government to get on and forge ahead, create strong relationships with business and develop new intellectual property. (This is doubtless going to be news to the universities, all of which I suspect already know that they need to create strong relationships, and have been doing so for years.) He also thinks that intellectual property rights need to be protected and enforced. I think he's talking about universities producing and patenting things. Thirdly he wants to get venture capital working correctly, by which he means taking risks and backing university led ideas.
Well yes, he does have a point. However, as Silicon.com suggests with 'Are we too snobbish to deserve a British Google?' it may all be down to something much simpler than Osborne is suggesting. Perhaps the problem is that the British have a tendancy to look down on business success. In the UK there is also a feeling of fail once and that's it, no second chances, while in the US the viewpoint is keep failing and keep trying until you get it right.
The government has invested heavily in the internet in the UK, and the People's Network surely has to be seen as a success, getting terminals into every library and getting more community involvement. However, while I don't have a lot of expertise in the area of big business, I just have to wonder if there isn't another reason why the Brits are failing, and that's down to the work ethic. Unlike the US, where people do appear to live to work, in the UK it's quite the other way around. Come 5pm and the tools are downed and people go home. I sometimes suggest to people that if they really want to get ahead in the internet game they need to invest some of their own time in exploring and learning in the evenings and at weekends. This suggestion is generally met with horror, swiftly followed with 'I'm not paid to do that and it's not my job anyway'. Not everyone is like this obviously, and I'm in danger of over generalising, but I've seen this attitude often enough to think there's something in it.
There's also another point here that's worthy of mention - do we actually need a British Google? I really can't see that we do. We already have a bunch of UK based search engines - over 160 last time I counted, and we also have .uk versions of the major engines as well. If I want something specifically British I already have a vast array of ways of getting it, from search engines to search syntax to UK portals and so on. Then of course there is the good old BBC, the font of all knowledge and wisdom. Come to think of it, there's not much by the way of European Googles either. The obvious example is the always excellent Exalead which I sing the praises of whenever I can. There continues to be development in the European market, with Accoona launching a .eu version of their engine at the end of this month. Obviously the French are keen to create their own version, generally because (the argument runs) they want to protect the French language and culture, and with the Googlisation of everything and turning it into English (albeit it American English) that'll be the end of France. This is of course absolute twaddle. You can search Google in French, and most other languages - Google isn't damaging the French language or culture at all. In fact it could be argued that the French have caused most damage themselves by sticking to their own national system while the rest of us were getting onto the net. If the French want to protect their culture and heritage, then write more French pages; it's not exactly rocket science.
Why isn't there a British Google? Plainly and simply, because we don't actually need one. That's really not the question that we should be asking. We do need more innovation, we do need more organisations that are (or at least should be) key players in the information world getting involved. We also need to change our attitude towards what is work, what isn't work, and what is keeping on top of what's happening in our own areas of professional interest. So the question is, 'Why aren't we doing that?' I don't have an answer, but I suspect the Silicon.com viewpoint is heading the right way.