Tradition still has a great role to play in the computer business. For example, when visiting a seminar or exhibition, there is a set way to enquire about the status of technology that has been spotted at Comdex.
Punter: 'How far are we behind the US in this technology?'
Salesperson: 'A year ago, I would have said 18 months, but now the time lag is much less in the UK, although Europe has been slower to catch on.'
This age-old rite has been with us as long as there has been a computer industry worth talking about, which in the US is about 30 years (it's about 18 months less over here). The conversation has nothing to do with the actual length of the time lag, which remains obstinately stuck at 18 months for anything worth paying for. Instead, it fulfils three important social functions in the British sales cycle:
1. Punter has just been told we're catching up - time to get on board.
2. Punter has just learned that we're still behind in the race to build a 21st century IT infrastructure - don't delay.
3. Punter has just learned that we are still better than the Minitel-obsessed, long-lunching French and the clock-watching, humourless Germans - we're still almost the best.
Both the internet and modern telecoms are, however, eroding this tradition, which deserves to be set alongside the police helmet and the rented television set as a guarantee of national identity. It's not that we're catching up on the US (BT and the cable companies will see to that), but that a rogue third element is getting in the way. And it's Nordic.
Punter: 'How far are we, etc?'
Salesperson: 'About 18 months, but in Denmark they have already begun trials.'
The malign influence of innovation in Scandinavia is destabilising our computer business. Because every time something exciting comes along, we find out that a Finnish telephone company, for example, has been using it for the past year to enable 200 reindeer farmers to shop for bobble hats online.
An example: last week I had the opportunity to talk to someone from Acorn about its latest thin client design, which the company claims can sell for less than #200 when it is finished in September. Acorn talks enthusiastically about a world in which applications are rented by the hour from telcos, which connect to your thin client - something that must be at least two years away in the UK because no one has done it in the US yet.
'And when might this actually happen?' I ask.
'In Denmark, one of the telcos is already doing it,' he says. 'It can sell you access in the UK.'
I checked and he's right. It may be a barmy idea, but yet again it's a Scandinavian idea, not a US or a British one. I wanted to warn Cable & Wireless about it, so I called.
I listened to the hold music for half an hour and gave up.
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