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This article was published on April 23, 2012

Apps are the road to riches? Not so, say UK boffins

Apps are the road to riches? Not so, say UK boffins
Jamillah Knowles
Story by

Jamillah Knowles

Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemi Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemimah_knight or drop a line to [email protected]

In evidence submitted to MPs in their response to questions about the commercialisation of research, the UK Computing Research Committee (UKCRC) has poured cold water on the optimism related to British tech research turning a real profit.

The committee says that although the UK has a good record of commercialisation, there are general and specific problems ahead.

One of which is the idea that the creation of apps will have you rolling in money. According to the report:

Software “apps” can be marketed through App Stores, such as Apple Inc’s iTunes store, but competition is intense, individual apps sell typically for 99p, and almost no-one recovers the realistic costs of development.

Grim news there and it gets a bit worse. Not only is new tech not going to make you immediately rich beyond your wildest dreams, it’s also very hard to keep up with Google and Facebook.

Some innovative software-based services have been commercialised extremely successfully – Facebook and Google being the leading examples – but the commercial model is extremely unusual, as it requires huge investment to provide free services so that a vast population of users is developed and monetised through advertising revenue and added-value services.

It looks as though the boffins are not down with the freemium model of getting a project going.

Valley of Death

The questions and report are related to the so-called ‘Valley of Death‘ enquiry. It sounds very dramatic and we hope there are no buzzards circling UK academics while they work. But the crux of the matter is how the government and academics can go from public to private and commercialize their research.

The ‘Valley of Death’ is a recurring issue that has been raised in the Science and Technology Committee’s previous inquiries and it points to difficulties in getting funding when researchers would like to turn their work into a commercial application.

It takes a lot of time and money for an academic pursuit to grow into a viable commercial proposition and this is reflected in the evidence from the committee.

Other issues include the fact that the UK has some hot competition from overseas and we’re not tapping that successfully. The report says:

“…despite the UK’s acknowledged strengths, most innovative research originates outside the UK and always will. It is therefore essential to encourage UK exploitation of overseas research with at least as much energy as is devoted to exploiting UK research. Often, this will require specialist knowledge of the research topic and this will be most easily accessed in university departments.”

Historical inspiration

The evidence presented might look like a downer for today, but it does reference the research that made Britiain great in the field of technology. Thinking back, the world’s first true computer was made in Manchester, the Cambridge University computer EDSAC was made here and commercialize by Lyons to become the first business computer.

The floppy disk, virtual memory, several important programming languages, software development methods, electronic design tools, and several computer architectures were all worked out in the UK. But the UKCRC says,

“Although some of these inventions have led to significant UK-based companies (ARM plc and Autonomy plc, for example), the UK does not have the share of world markets in computing that our history of innovations would suggest could have been achieved.”

So a bit of a come down there for expectations. The engineers blame the government’s lack of proper investment in academic R&D and naturally would like this to be addressed. Agile development is clearly not popular in this report.

“At present, the software industry is unique in being able to sell products that contain many functional defects and security vulnerabilities without any consequent liability: for example, when a security breach occurs because of a wholly-avoidable software vulnerability, the software manufacturer and vendors simply blame their customers for failing to apply maintenance patches fast enough! This is increasingly unacceptable.

It looks as though what the academics would like is some form of standardisation in order to get long term results to flourish in the UK.

If a timetable was announced for the introduction of strict liability (with appropriate consultation over how this would be interpreted and enforced), the software industry would have the incentive to adopt the modern software engineering methods that can largely eliminate these problems, and the UK would benefit twice: once through access to much improved products and once through the take-up of computing methods, tools and expertise where the UK is a world leader.”

The Government asked some pretty open questions in their enquiry and it looks as though the boffins are putting their foot down on expectations and realities when it comes to academic research.

Given the UK’s outstanding past in the technological field, you’d hope that academics are not being asked to create iPhone apps to fund their work. What appears to be the real deficit here is time and large sums of money to resuscitate the UK’s technological research.

Hat tip: The Register