Andrew Fentem: Why I went to quango to fund pre-iPhone touch tech
And why I'm leaving hardware ...
Special Report Part 2 In the late '90s British inventor Andrew Fentem pioneered multitouch techniques, years before Apple brought them to market in the iPhone and later the iPad. He won backing for his technology from Britain's new innovation quango: but its incompetence meant that Apple ultimately looked elsewhere. We told the story of how the UK lost out in this special report. In this interview, Andrew speaks about the saga.
Q. Several groups were working on multitouch technology at the time. Microsoft Research was one example. What made yours different?
Fentem: Yes, a small handful of other people were interested in multitouch systems, mainly as academic research. Microsoft was one, but it did not pursue any kind of commercial project until after the iPhone was released when they hurriedly built a "Surface" prototype in 2007, and then claimed to have been working on it for years. This was totally untrue - they were desperate to appear as "innovators", like Apple.
Around 2003 a couple of companies were working on real commercial projects, but they had very different visions about where they were going. One was Fingerworks, which set out to build "better mouse or better touchpad" products. Another was a French company which envisaged a purely dedicated music performance system.
So I was the only person in the world whose vision was developing small low-cost multitouch general purpose systems with a view to having a multitouch tablet "on every desk". As Steve Jobs would say: "No one else could see that".
Samsung's lawyers told me that they'd scoured the planet and been unable to find anyone else who'd been working on this stuff at that time.
Q. You found yourself the global authority on multitouch technology when Samsung called you as the expert witness.
Fentem: Yes, I was, but I can’t talk about my role or anything that went on in court as it’s under a confidentiality agreement. When Apple sued HTC over multitouch patents, the case was heard before I'd been "discovered" by Samsung's lawyers, so HTC had to resort to using an HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] academic as their defence witness. This HCI academic testified what they imagined a real engineer might have done in a certain hypothetical multitouch R&D situation, in an imaginary commercial multitouch project. Obviously this was a much weaker and more tenuous argument than using a real engineer who'd actually done it in a real commercial project.
Q. It’s hard to summarise what went wrong – but NESTA’s bias was clearly towards arts, not science.
Fentem: The essential problem was that "N.E.S.T.A." appreciated the A (Arts), but not the S (Science) or T (Technology) [rather like will.i.am - Ed]. When I first became involved with Nesta in early 2003 I asked an Invention and Innovation manager who'd been assigned to supervise my project whether he had a science or engineering background. He laughed and said, "No one at NESTA has a science or engineering background."
When he saw the look of horror and disbelief on my face he quickly said, "But we're trying to remedy that." They didn't remedy that - they just closed down I&I a few years later.
In fact, a rival got a "DreamTime project" to do something quite similar: called Stanza. It explored artistic uses of user interface technologies. Nesta itself wrote that “Dreamtime awards support to talented individuals to enable them to pursue a course of personal & creative development. The Stanza project is not a commercial venture but is an artistic exploration researching technological interfaces primarily in exhibition spaces."
An artist, not an engineer, received the funding.
Q. Why didn’t you seek private funding? Were you forbidden from doing so?
Fentem: The key window of opportunity was from 2002 to the end of 2004. Once I realised in 2005 that Nesta probably weren't going to budge I was left with no money, no colleagues, a lot of wasted time, my "strategy" was in the public domain (thanks to Nesta PR)*, and other companies such as Apple were making moves. The only advantage a startup has is surprise. That was gone.
In hindsight I should have approached a VC in late 2002 – it would have been faster, scaled up more quickly - though back then most tech savvy people thought multitouch stuff was uninteresting. Even experts worried that I was "out at the end of a very long limb".
Building something like my YouTube 2004 multitouch system is a complex job (especially for one person) - I had to work out the physics of the sensing, do the signal processing to extract "touches" from the signals generated by the surface, send those touch messages to the operating system, and then the operating system had to be designed to cope with multiple touches. At each of these levels of the "virtual machine" there are opportunities for defining new "inventions" - and from 2005 Steve Jobs himself decreed Apple must start patenting all work they did at all of these levels of the machine.
Samsung found me useful because I was unique in that I had built an entire system - hardware, signal processing, operating system, and application layer from the ground up, before Apple had. Maybe if I'd had the Nesta investment in 2003 I could have stayed ahead of Apple and had a ton of ultra valuable patents by 2005?
Q. So was there never a proper investigation into the management of Nesta?
Fentem: No. As Sir Alan Haselhurst MP pointed out, there was a distinct "lack of accountability" at Nesta - none of the bodies that should have been policing Nesta would help - DCMS, the National Audit Office, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman all declined to get involved.
Backbench MPs seemed to be very keen to help, but they have surprisingly little power.
Q. Has anything changed in recent years for the better?
Fentem: I thought it might have done, but recent communications with Vince Cable's Business Innovation and Skills Department feel like they are contacting me via a wormhole from the 1970s - his staff always describe me as having "worked for" Nesta - as if I had been nationalised. Fortunately Vince's department told me that George Osborne has identified "eight great technologies" that they're going to support. The trouble is, government departments just do not have the money, will, or leadership to be as ruthless as the competition - be it China, Apple, Microsoft or Google.
The Technology Strategy Board seems to have taken over some responsibility from Nesta for supporting startups, but the business model seems hauntingly similar - ie, civil servants micro-managing projects that they don't understand. These problems at the TSB are not surprising - Government bodies continuously make the same mistakes; the high turnover of civil servants means that they are not very good at organisational learning.
In fact, so many Nesta staff [have left since] the "multitouch" debacle that, incredibly, a few years later I was invited to speak at a Nesta conference in Cambridge. The new staff had just read about me in the media and had no knowledge of what had gone on before ...
Recently the Coalition allowed Nesta to spin off from government as a independent charitable body. Even though they retreated from directly supporting innovators years ago, they were allowed to keep their £300m in Lottery money ...
Q. So what should government do?
Fentem: I think that if the government really is keen to grow the economy it should be trying much harder to get money into the hands of young people - people with energy and ideas. Lack of jobs, inappropriate schemes, meagre benefits, inadequate housing supply and exploitative landlords mean that the young have little scope to express themselves creatively.
Unfortunately the priority of this government is to support irresponsible banks and borrowers. A few years ago I was interviewed about my work by the British Council - the article was for a magazine distributed by their "creative embassies" around the world. After the usual questions about my influences , they asked me what my message would be to young people thinking about coming to work or study in the UK. I said, "Don't."
"Don't what?" asked the woman from the British Council.
"Don't come. Don't come to the UK....that would be my message," I said.
I went on to say that so long as the typical British person's idea of "investment" was becoming a buy-to-let landlord and then exploiting students and young people, then the UK had no future. Once I'd finished my 10-minute rant, I said to the dumb-struck patriot from the British Council, "You're not going to print one word of that are you?"
"No," she replied.
Q. What was the response from the Financial Times, specifically Martin Wolf (who wrote the FT piece "A much-maligned engine of innovation" as a critique of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths), after you argued against the claims of its author, Professor Mazzucato? (See letter to the FT "My savings, not government, funded multitouch research")
Fentem: It was strange. Martin Wolf replied, and I’ll quote:
"I should note that the ICT industry is no longer new. So I would not expect the public sector role to continue to be important. The state's role surely matters most at the inception of a new class of general purpose technologies."
This is puzzling - ICT is no longer important? This was my reply, I quote again:
Your letter makes an interesting point, however, it is perhaps unwise to underestimate the ability of the ICT industry to radically innovate through the absorption of breakthroughs in physics (graphene-based hardware, quantum computing etc), biology (bio interfaces etc), and even the arts. At home I have a 60-year-old engineering book ("Faster Than thought", Dr BV Bowden, 1953) describing state-of-the-art ICT hardware and "apps" (games, weather forecasting, economic data processing, government admin etc). I'm sure that Dr Bowden felt that ICT was no longer 'new'.
My letter to the Editor was a critique of Professor Mazzucato's data and her analysis of that data. Much of the book is based on data from ICT industry and the military. From an academic perspective, saying that ICT isn't important only serves to further dismantle Professor Mazzucato's thesis.
Q. In 2010 Professor Mazzucato wrote in The Grauniad:
“Venture capital has not done enough to nurture companies through to product development, giving priority to making millions from the initial public offering phase (IPO).”
Yet since then many startups that have successfully applied to the state agencies have failed to find the matching VC backing. Even VCs don’t want to touch them. Does this mean the public is now subsidising bad ideas? Do we have a glut of bad ideas?
MOST ideas are bad: Invest in good people...
Grayson Perry recently said that most art is bad. I think the same could be said of ideas, but it depends on your evaluation criteria – ideas can be commercially weak, but still interesting. I think you should invest in good people – they'll eventually turn up a winner. Look at Michael Acton Smith – he'd burned a huge amount of VC money before he came up with the idea for Moshi Monsters.
"Urgency" is what public bodies just can't do: Consider the UK government's recent £21.5m investment in graphene, seven years after its discovery in 2005. What would Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have done if the startling properties of graphene had been discovered in their labs? Who knows ... but I like to think that Steve Jobs would have given the researchers £21.5m in stock just to keep their mouths shut, and immediately invested $1bn in appropriate R&D. Instead, lest we forget, the last Labour government wanted to build "Super Casinos" as engines of economic regeneration. You just couldn't make it up.
"Urgency" is what public bodies just can't do: Consider the UK government's recent £21.5m investment in graphene, seven years after its discovery in 2005...
Q. In his 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell described the emergence of a professional technocratic elite, a "priesthood" who wield the real power. The sociologist Joel Kotkin calls it a "clerisy”, an elite with a uniformity of views, that "derives not primarily through economic influence per se but through its growing power to inform opinion and regulate everything from how people live to what industries will be allowed to grow, or die."
These are the winners today. Do you recognise either of these descriptions? Is this what we’re seeing today?
Fentem: Yes, I do recognise this.
One of the reasons I am speaking out about this issue now is because it is important for people with first hand experience of the real world to prevent these political groupings from generating and propagating myths that serve their career and group objectives.
Apple have created a lot of myths around their invention prowess, however, they're good engineers, and history is generally written by the commercial victors, so you've got to say that's fair enough.
There are simply too many politicians and economists in the UK promoting stories and myths based on second, third or even fourth hand experience of the world, because they only ever talk to other members of this "elite".
It seems to me that every economist has a "product" that is evaluated in terms of not how it explains or predicts real events, but how it will shape their media profile...
Some of my engineering contemporaries from the '80s (usually the ones who weren't actually very good engineers) went on to work on the City. Some of them ended up designing, as it turns out, highly toxic financial derivative products. During after-work conversations with these "financial engineers" in the heady days of the mid-2000s bubble, it was clear that some of them understood the dangers in what they were doing – but no one ever asked them what was going on, because no one in the media-economics-political "elite" ever spoke to them.
Once the crash happened, members of the elite began propagating the myth that "no one saw it coming". [Many of them] ultimately had a "good recession". However, this "no one saw it coming" myth has served the UK poorly, because it has provided many of the real culprits in the banking sector with a route to escape justice.
Q.What are you going to do next?
Fentem: I think the hardware moment has passed for the time being. The smartphone revolution will rumble along: Apple was first to pick the low-hanging fruit and did it very well - but advances in microprocessors had made the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad inevitable - which is why people like me switched from software to hardware around the year 2000. I'm now switching back to software/network stuff because there's a much more obvious business model.
Hardware is my first love, and I've got a couple interesting new technologies up my sleeve, but the broken patent system, China's manufacturing prowess, and the lack of knowledgeable VCs in the UK all mean that making money out of hardware while being based in the UK is difficult. I'm 45 now – I've been doing unusual things with electronics and computers for more than 30 years – it would be good to find a way to share some of this experience. ®
*Nesta contended at the time that it had provided a "one-line description" of his project published in a bulletin without his approval, but denied that any intellectual property rights had been infringed by [the] disclosure.