Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 11/84 item 03 - scanned

A MONUMENT FIT TO BANK? (column)

Now that several venture capitalists have had their fingers burnt in the micro business it seems they are seeking new 'get rich quick' schemes. Hooray. Perhaps the rest of us can now get on with our jobs in a more manageable and less distorted marketplace. Of course there will always be people prepared to throw risk money at a problem but I think we can live with a few of them. It's when everyone seems to be doing it that the genuine people are most threatened.

Changing the subject for a moment, what do you like to see when you visit Paris? The Eiffel Tower perhaps? A trip to Egypt wouldn't be complete without seeing the Pyramids. And can you imagine going to Wiltshire and not visiting Stonehenge? The point I am making is that previous generations weren't averse to building the odd monument.

Look around. Are we building any equivalent monuments today? Are we creating anything which we can leave for the pleasure of future generations? Should we be thinking about it? The examples I chose earlier all reflect triumphs of muscle power rather than brainpower. In this cerebral latter part of the twentieth century, didn't we ought to think about creating some intellectual monuments? Or maybe not even monuments so much as useful things which don't bring a swift bottom-line boost. Things which are done for the good of this and future generations and with less concern for what is immediately profitable.

Of course, a small company can't risk its existence on such a venture but a government can, or a monumentally rich corporation (guess who), or even individuals getting together in their own time and at their own expense.

A friend of mine in so-called Silicon Valley left his research post in one of the better-known artificial intelligence laboratories to set up a company whose objective was to produce a database system with a natural language recognition front end. It was a worthy and wonderful thing to want to do. He had a very bright team and was adequately funded and work seemed to be progressing well.

Understandably, but sadly, when things started going wrong in the Valley, the company's backers demanded a quicker return on their investment. A new management team was put in. My friend and his colleagues, experts in AI, were then told to produce a straightforward database - no frills. A dBase 11 competitor in fact. What a waste of talent. What a tragedy and, I suspect, what a disaster for the investors. Sure, they've got a good experienced management team but what sort of product will they end up with? Another me-too in an already overcrowded marketplace?

My friend has gone back to a well-funded research establishment but this time in one of the monumentally rich corporations, I think he can achieve his natural language recognition goals there, if he can stand the bureaucracy. He's probably found the best answer for him - an outfit that is prepared to spend millions of dollars on speculative research. The end product of my friend's efforts will be to further strengthen that particular corporation's grip on its marketplace.

At least in Britain we have (don't sneer) the Alvey initiative. I know it smacks of bureaucracy and many of us are just not used to that way of working. I know, too, it is small beer compared with the cost of keeping clapped out coal mines open. But it exists and it offers a chance for us to work towards entirely worthy goals. The Software Engineering Group for example wants to create an Information Systems Factory by 1989. They haven't a clue how it's going to happen and there's something of a free-for-all going on at the moment. Anyone with ideas which look reasonable and workable are being given the opportunity to get stuck in. If we (Britain) can be first with this Factory then we can really start motoring and distance ourselves from the rest of the world. Our Systems Factory will be churning out applications (both hardware and software) using the highest level tools available.

Alvey is trying to gather together all the existing system development tools, data dictionary systems, test harnesses, project databases and so on and build them into a file-based project support environment built around Unix. They want to encourage collaboration between researchers and industry. Having made the most of what exists, they then plan to develop a number of second generation systems - one a development from the first phase, others (exciting for us I suspect) based on nothing, 'clean sheet' approaches in fact. The final stage will incorporate knowledge bases and 'intelligent' tools. Although the phases are described as a sequence work on all three phases will be go on concurrently.

Strip away the committees, subcommittees, advisory panels and all the rest of the necessary but offputting stuff and it's clear that this is potentially one of the most exciting things we could become part of. It offers us all an opportunity not only to solve some of this country's problems but also to build the intellectual monuments I mentioned earlier.