back to article How Britain could have invented the iPhone: And how the Quangocracy cocked it up

This is a disturbing, cautionary tale of quasi-government and its bungling. It describes how Britain could have led the recent advances in touchscreen technology, developing kit capable detecting more than one fingertip at once, years before Apple did – if it weren't for the nation's treacle-footed, self-serving quangocracy. …

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Anonymous Coward

Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

You know there is something very wrong in a culture when people start whining about what "could have been" instead of getting on with the present and making something new happen.

And let's be careful of how we state things ... products are invented and marketed by companies not by countries !!!! By saying "Britain could have invented the iphone" you imply indirectly that the nation should have supported the effort.... which is exactly WHY it was not developed in this country because quangocracy is not a hotbed of commercial innovation.

Remember the I-phone was invented and marketed by Apple using private funds... (and buying/licensing technologies that came from all over the world) not by expecting manna from government.

The same could have been done in Britain (just as France, Germany Korea or Japan they all had the technology and know how) if someone there had the finance, the vision and the guts to go ahead with such a project.

Don't blame the lack of private sector vision and appetite for risk on quangos....

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Mushroom

Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

Well, you could argue that the iPhone was invented by Britain seeing as Sir Jonny Ive did the designing deed?

This article highlights what Britain can still do so well - innovation and design - it's just that successive bullshit governments have failed to have the vision to back the winners. (Too busy lining their own pockets by selling off publicly owned assets).

NESTA had no experts in science or technology? Truly ludicrous. It's all too evident in the way they wrote about the product that this was the case.

Should have gone it alone, done the patenting himself and then sold it to Apple. Trust no one in government to actually understand anything more than how to bullshit a line or two all day long.

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FAIL

Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

"Remember the I-phone was invented and marketed by Apple using private funds... (and buying/licensing technologies that came from all over the world) not by expecting manna from government."

Have you actually read the article?

"But apparently the state does more. According to Mazzucato, as cited by Polly Toynbee, “huge state investment in touch screens” gave Apple its advantage. Mazzucato went further: “all the technologies that make the iPhone ‘smart’ are also state funded”. [p112] For Mazzucato, the state had made “an investment” in Westerman’s multitouch but failed to “recuperate” it. [p72] "

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re: no experts in science and technology

But obviously great expertise in clowning

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Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

"it's just that successive bullshit governments have failed to have the vision to back the winners"

That thinking is the root cause of the problems.

Communist and socialist environments have never been hotbeds of new technology and have never given rise to real 'winners'.

What the UK (and NYC) should do is abandon making money through investment banking rip-offs of world + dog and make money through investment banking that invests in good promising technology -- that is what successful countries like the USA (apart from NYC) do.

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it's not just quangos

Most universities are run the same way. Thaat's why you end up with all sorts of ridiculous rules, and a bias towards art/humanities bollocks instead of engineering etc.

What can someone do with a PhD in history but teach/administrate in a university? End result is that you get rules made by these people, for the benefit of these people.

At the university my son attends, the primary criterion for getting a teaching job in ANY disciplie (even Comp Sc) is having a PhD. No PhD means you can only teach first years - no matter your knowledge or ability.

Although the engineering dept ahs tried to rally against it, the University (ie. history grads etc) force this rule to feather their own nests.

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Headmaster

Re: "the I-phone was invented"?

I think you mean smartphone, which was actually invented by IBM in 1992. Multi-touch technology was invented by the University of Toronto's Input Research Group in 1982. This was all many years before Fentem came along.

Ultimately the iPhone was just a product development, not an "invention", and not even unique. Indeed it was beaten to the market by the LG Prada several months earlier.

It should also be noted that at least one half of the most significant technology that made the iPhone possible was government funded (multi-touch for a start), and in reality all of it, depending on how far back into the history of telecommunications you want to look.

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Alert

Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

So you really can't tell the difference between whining and a warning?

Interesting.

BTW, both private and public sector ventures have a VERY long list of spectacularly impressive failures. But it wasn't some private venture that put men on the moon, now was it? Or built continental sized transportation systems of uniform standard. Or provide enforced standard across all industries that ensure safety and reliability.

The really big projects will always be the province of government, but in this particular instance, yes, the government failed.

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Facepalm

Could have had, could have been.

The first man to fly faster than the speed of sound but a Labour Government stopped that.

Could have had the most advanced aircraft in the world, the TSR-2 but a Labour Government stopped that.

Stafford Cripps a Labour minister gave away the British Nene Jet engine to the USA and to the USSR who promptly reverse engineered it and put it in the MiG 15 which was used to kill British and America airmen in Korea.

Do you see a pattern.

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You do feel that they sent the wrong clowns on holiday, don't you? I mean, who would have objected to paying for the flight to Brazil on public funds, particularly if it was one way. Money well spent (for a change)!

Oh yes, I see. Well then, who, apart from the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and the Brazilians, who I suppose do have a stake.

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Re: "the I-phone was invented"?

Hear hear. At least the Register gets it right that Apple were first to market with a multitouch phone, rather than touchscreen phones, though the importance is overstated. The the difference between touchscreen and non-touchscreen is far bigger than the minor additional benefit of multitouch.

Indeed, a multitouch UI can be a pain, as it means that you can't use it one-handed. A good UI should be designed to work with singletouch too (odd how now, Apple users criticise Android phones for being too big to use one handed, whilst portraying multitouch as the single most important thing ever...)

Nor are Apple the biggest tech company (that argument is only on one hand-picked stat, and not by many other more useful metrics). Biggest at getting endless media hype, maybe.

If the Register wants to talk up Britain's part, then how about giving coverage to ARM, the company that designs the processors in almost every mobile device, from the minority of Apple products, to the 80% of Android devices. But no, let's not let facts get in the way of Apple Apple Apple - better to pretend Britain's involvement is nothing more than a "could have made a 2007 dumb phone that was massively outsold by Nokia".

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

Re: Re: "the I-phone was invented"?

"how about giving coverage to ARM"

We've written thousands of articles about ARM.

C.

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Thumb Up

The Black Swan Theory

This article is actually guite a good example of how Nissam Taleb's Black Swan theory is actually appropriate within contemporary societey. In this context we have the Black Swan personified by the quangos....

Success, as he wrote elsewhere in his book, has very little to do with actual logic, technical marvel or genuis level strategies it has far more to do with "pure chance" than anything else.

PS :Thumbs up for the article, it is an interesting insight into what goes on behind the scenes of what should/could produce some interesting ideas/technology.

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Headmaster

Re: The Black Swan Theory

Not sure this is a "Black Swan" (unforeseen event that your model didn't account for and that gets you unawares like a supernova popping off in your neighborhood while you thought about visiting the next solar system).

It is just utter failure of vision and willingness to take risks, followed by wanking over the godlike benevolence and willingness to take risks of the magnificent state by paid court jesters. Here in the person of professor Mazzucato, who probably doesn't even know what "neoliberal" means. (What does it mean? It means the person who has given up on classical laissez-faire liberalism by injecting a fat post-WWII dose of socialistic state control, aka. "favouring middle of the road" policy.

We are quite a bit further down the "middle" of that kinda road now, of course, as evidenced here. My, these fasces are coming awfully close.

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Re: The Black Swan Theory

I consider the Black Swan as being the unforseen and pathetic handling of the event by NESTA. NESTA appears to have had excellent goals and ideas and also to have been an ideal path to choose. Unfortunately for Fentem is didn't work out that way.

If Fentem has known in advance about how his case was going to be handled he would have probably attempted to achieve his funding from another source.

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Re: The Black Swan Theory

"Willingness to take risks" is pretty much number one on the list of reasons a company goes bankrupt. Never underestimate the power of luck.

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Re: The Black Swan Theory

It's also the reason some companies make it big.

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Re: The Black Swan Theory

And that is one of the two main principles of the Black Swan theory, that luck has more to do with success than good ideas.

You must take risks, but you do not know which risks will pay off.

An example the book gives is the movie industry. Nobody has ever been able to predict which movies will be successful. So major motion picture companies risk a little bit of money in a great many movies. Smaller production companies each risk a great deal in a small number of movies.

Touch screens were around long before the iPhone and Apple. But they did not 'take off'. From about.com,

"Historians consider the first touch screen to be a capacitive touch screen invented by E.A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, UK, around 1965 - 1967. The inventor published a full description of touch screen technology for air traffic control in an article published in 1968."

What made iPhone popular is what makes a best selling author or major painter popular: The bandwagon effect, that it is the person (Jobs) people wanted, not the technology. Owning Apple meant being being associated as a fan of Jobs.

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Mushroom

Re: The Black Swan Theory

The subject of TFA wasn't just a touchscreen, it was multi-touch UI (that wasn't the size of a fucking washing machine) and could therefore provide a practical and useful UI for a pocket-sized mobile device. That is what this guy and Fingerworks brought to the table, and yes it was novel because it hadn't been technologically feasible before, not because Steve Jobs had a nice polo-neck.. You're flailing.

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FAIL

Never ask governments to pick winners

It's an old lesson a long time in the learning...

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Re: Never ask governments to pick winners

No its an article written with the benefit of hindsight. Interesting though.

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Mushroom

Clowns... the lot of them...

that is all the jerks* in NESTA...

* well maybe some of them aren't jerks, but there does seem to be a serious need to whack these idiots with a cluestick...

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Trollface

Re: Clowns... the lot of them...

Perhaps one of the clowns can oblige you.

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Personal recent experience with government 'support' for innovation has been anything but good - wooly targets, big headline figures and a protracted series of hoops to jump through. The end result is that the opportunity for chance success is eliminated, replaced by the job of fitting to a lumberingly slow process which offers marginal financial support to small businesses.

That said, I'm not sure how you make it better. It should be faster, more flexible and not afraid of failure. In that respect the startup scene shows a lot of possibility - and it's here that the government should be able to outpace commerce by removing (or at least reducing) the cold hard financial requirements in favour of enabling people to 'take a punt' on new technology. The TSB funding is not enabling - it supports businesses that can prove they are capable of standing alone, and in return demands they fit the unique pace of government entities.

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Governments will never take a financial risk that is obvious as such to the electorate, and, as taxpayers, should we really expect anything different? The best way government can help is to set the legislative & policy landscape such that private capital finds it easier to support innovation like this, and for innovators to find the private capital. But Labour really doesn't like that idea. There is a reason why VCs in the UK (if there are any that really deserve the term) are so much less obvious than VCs in the US.

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Coat

picking winners...

you mean that BBC program where we get to see VC's with piles of cash picking winners?

It is no wonder why the US version of the show format is called "shark tank".

Sharks actually exist...

P.

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"Governments will never take a financial risk that is obvious as such to the electorate, and, as taxpayers, should we really expect anything different?"

Generally I'd agree with you, but this was money specifically put aside to try and kick start inventions an innovation.

I'd rather they put the money into projects that had a 5% chance of success than give it to moochers after an expensive holiday. But that's just me, it seems.

Has the bloke who was give thick end of £40k to go to Vegas made back even 1% of that money in any way? I would hazard a guess that we would have got better value from sending him to Blackpool to play the penny falls with it.

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Alien

Speechless

On the other hand weren't there some issues about chip plants being funded and then out of date before the papers were off the table?

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Anonymous Coward

I don't mind the government creating jobs

For chinless wonders, but aren't they supposed to be put into highly paid positions where they can do no harm?

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New Labour were very relaxed about individuals becoming extremely rich, but in return they created a whole range of non-jobs in the Public sector to assign to their supporters.

You can spot these types because their job titles include words such as Outreach, Coordinator, etc and are often combined with Youth and Elderly. A good example of their work is the creation of travel plans for schools. As if parents who drive their kids to school have not considered walking, cycling or taking the bus!

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"No one at Nesta has a science or engineering background"

Which says it all really. Does anyone know how much PWC got for their involvement?

Thank you Andrew for the insight, depressing as it is. Plus ca change...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Which says it all really

I have this idea for a money-distributing quango: we get a panel of scientists together and decide how to spend the money on the arts & artists :-)

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Re: Which says it all really

@Anon Big LOL! That is an EXCELLENT idea, but all we'd have to show for it would be comic books, novelty ties and ironic t-shirts.

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Happy

Re: comic books, novelty ties and ironic t-shirts.

Oh, I don't know. You'd be surprised at how artistic theoretical calculations, computer modelling, and (e.g.) high-vacuum cold atom sculpture is. Especially once it had been properly funded.

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Anonymous Coward

Quango's like NESTA

Are there to give well paid jobs to the Sir Brownnose and Lord Fuck'titup's of the 1%, who's only abilities are receiving large salaries and sitting around in committees chatting to their mates whilst consuming large quantities of tax payer cash.

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I'm from the government and I'm here to help...

...myself.

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Nesta had ***four*** grandiose ambitions

Ambition zero was the most important:

0. Provide a way to funnel money and/or power to parasitical government hangers-on - friends, relatives, lovers, minders and fixers, those who've done favours and those from whom you expect favours.

That's the real job most quangos do.

The real lesson is don't expect anything from the government. Sell your house. Find an investor. Find an investor who will sell his house. But don't go near the zombie hand of government "assistance".

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Anonymous Coward

Labour are thick. Not as thick as the people who vote for them, but still... thick.

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Flame

And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?

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Mushroom

And Cameron / Osborne are right flippin' Einsteins aren't they?

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I wholeheartedly concur...

...and admire your remarkable restraint in your descriptions.

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When do you start filming the next series of Secret Millionaire...?

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Boffin

@DaneB

Indeed Sir, Cameron & Osborne are particularly repellent examples of humanity, BUT...

Their being repellent does not automatically preclude Labour from being more than somewhat dense. Furthermore, a statement describing Labour as extremely lacking in the brightness department is in no way indicative of an endorsement of the other lot.

In my (not so) humble opinion, the whole bunch of 'em are utter and total arseholes, and I know many other people of the same opinion.

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>>"And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?"

Honestly, they're evil but reasonably competent. My opinion on New Labour is that they are simply downright evil, hypocritical, self-righteous scum who do nothing well except play to the crowds. Ever since Tony "quick - make up a reason to bomb Iraq" Blair took power, they have become a pettier and more small minded version of the conservatives.

This whole story made me want to cry. I did some work in the Public Sector during New Labour's tenure. I fled back to industry. Pure, completely pure, gravy train. Pigs in a trough doesn't come close to how things were under New Labour. Not sure what it's like now - probably not much difference. But I can tell you hand on heart that under New Labour, the corruption was institutional and started right at the top.

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"And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?"

Not genius, certainly not popular, but you can't deny the fact that they've gotten the country through a recession compounded by Labour ineptness without resorting to the usual socialist panic spend, spend, spend (regardless of whether you have the money) approach.

Remember - Labour bailed the banks out.

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JC_

"And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?"

Not genius, certainly not popular, but you can't deny the fact that they've gotten the country through a recession compounded by Labour ineptness without resorting to the usual socialist panic spend, spend, spend (regardless of whether you have the money) approach.

Remember - Labour bailed the banks out.

Osborne and Cameron have deepened and lengthened the recession because of their austerity policy. That's a fact. If this is the recovery it's taken longer and been weaker than the recovery from the Great Depression.

Their policies are madness, completely unsupported by economic theory or empirical evidence and have caused enormous human suffering.

Fortunately for them, they and their clique are completely sheltered from the consequences of their dreadful decisions; the poor and the unemployed are the ones who are suffering.

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I am not convinced that we are out of the recession yet. Technically the economy has not shrunk for two or three quarters in row but its not growing either.

As for panic spending, we have a range of neo-Keynesian spending going on, from help to buy which is keeping the housing bubble going and potentially billions to be spent on HS2.

There is also the small matter of the gov't keeping their friends and donors sweet. Royal Mail sans pensions liabilities sold at well below value, increase in PPI, etc, etc.

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"I am not convinced that we are out of the recession yet. "

The UK isn't. It's taking creative book keeping to make it look like the country is treading water.

Cameron recently had the UK's position in the New World Order well and truely explained to him by the chinese leadership - and meekly accepted it.

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No, that's an opinion

Economics being the fuzzy trick-cycling that it is, you can find lots of eminent economists utterly convinced that the ConDem policies have shortened and shallowed the recession, as well as a few saying that they lengthened and deepened it.

However, the general consensus is that a Labour coalition would have bankrupted us instead, causing a full-scale depression and hyper-inflation.

Though it can't be proven, partly because economists are trick-cyclists, but mostly because Labour have had no plans at all other than "Not what the ConDems say" throughout most of their opposition.

Heck, I still have no idea what Balls and Miliband actually stand for or believe, unless it really is just the "Not Tory" stance they've been following.

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[i]Ever since Tony "quick - make up a reason to bomb Iraq" Blair took power, they have become a pettier and more small minded version of the conservatives.[/i]

Well quite. I'm glad that at least one other person other than me has figured this out!

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