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What's the future of the UK IT industry?

Knowledge economy?

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Developing the Future Developing The Future is an annual report from Microsoft and various industry partners, which looks at the UK software development industry in the context of the UK economy as a whole.

The 2007 report is sponsored by City University, London; the British Computer Society, and Intellect (the trade association for the UK hi-tech industry); as well as Microsoft itself.

As well as its reports, it has closed workshop sessions which, purportedly, help give practicing government ministers an insight into what's really going on around IT.

The key findings of its latest report include:

  • The world is changing and the Knowledge Economy [whatever that is; you can guess, it's what knowledge workers and power users do in areas like financial services and IT services] is expected to contribute 50 per cent of the UK GDP by 2010.
  • We're actually rather successful at this, and London is becoming a global entrepreneurial hub, partly on the back of emerging economies such as China and India [For how long, might be the question to ask].
  • Private sector investment in "intangible assets" (such as software, R&D and brands) now equals the investment in tangibles such as manufactured products.
  • There is a serious IT skills shortage, IT degrees are increasingly unpopular - and only some 20 per cent of the UK IT workforce is female, which means we aren't fully exploiting the resources available to us.
  • There is pressure on the UK government to encourage school students to take up IT earlier – by reforming the National Curriculum, of course.
  • And, apparently, there is a "clear loud call for the UK government to develop appropriate IP rights for the Digital Age to support innovation". [Well, there probably is, but be careful of what you ask for, you might get it; and this sounds a bit like special pleading by Microsoft to me. Although IP does have a value and its ownership should be protected, I'm just a little worried that this will mean, in practice, bloating my software applications with unreliable DRM code.]

Nothing very surprising in those conclusions then, but the devil is, of course, in the detail and in the debate generated. There was in fact a reasonably healthy debate with the speakers at the launch

Julie Meyer (CEO of Ariadne Capital and founder of First Tuesday) for example, said the time was over for European "feudalism" and the way it limits entrepreneurial freedom (although she has plenty of European credibility, she rather likes the way the US does things and wasn't keen on EU regulation).

"Live free or die", is her cry, which is fine as long as you're given the choice (some of us would take our chance with tyranny if the alternative were a cruise missile through the front door). However, if this means that no future UK prime minister will ride into unwinnable battles at the heels of his feudal liege-lord in the US, then I'm all in favour. Whether you see her low tax, small government, entrepreneurial paradise as utopia or dystopia probably depends on how much money you have access to and whether you have a job and a roof over your head.

Ben Page of Ipsos MORI countered with a realistic view of what the UK is really like. We may have entrepreneurs and service industries, but take up of IT in the general population is levelling out and some people just aren't interested. That's quite a lot of people who aren't going to be members of the globalised entrepreneurial society and just ignoring them may not be a useful approach.

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