The spoils of war

While Silicon Valley shudders at the prospect of global recession, the "smart" software companies are reaping the spoils of war,...

While Silicon Valley shudders at the prospect of global recession, the "smart" software companies are reaping the spoils of war, says John Charlton

Those of you who shook a tail-feather in the 1970s may recall the pithy words of Tamla Motown artiste Edwin Starr: "War! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin'. I'll say it again" No, once is quite enough Edwin.

He was wrong of course, as war has been 'good' for much of mankind and especially the technologies that some of its number have developed. Swords into ploughshares apart, tank technology fed into earthmover equipment and German V2 rocket science fuelled the US and Soviet space programmes. And just think what war has done for the media. It has kept the BBC in sitcoms for the past 40 years, and given Kate Adie places to visit that don't feature in the Saga brochure.

Could the great War Against Terrorism (WAT), that presently unfolds in the Newsnight studio, be the saviour that the beleaguered IT industry is hoping for? It's beginning to look that way in Silicon Valley, where the dotcom bust has wasted many companies and careers.

In the Golden State, where once the peace 'n' love movement flourished, it is the defence industries that are hiring IT talent. While the likes of H-P, Cisco and Sun are showing thousands the door, defence contractors such as Lockheed, Boeing and Raytheon are all recruiting. Smart weaponry, and even the rather less smart stuff, needs complex software and semiconductor technology to get it to the right destination - or even the wrong one. Also, and increasingly so, those who fire the weapons are also kitted out with IT, creating another lucrative market for suppliers to WAT combatants.

Of course, California's hi-tech industries were built on the huge defence programmes that ran from the late 1940s to the end of the Cold War. Much the same in the UK, except on a much smaller scale.

As late as the mid-1980s defence and aerospace production accounted for one-fifth of Silicon Valley's output, a figure which fell to 5% this year. One winner looks likely to be the handheld computer industry that has been having a lean time of it lately. Palm is already supplying handhelds for personal use to many US naval personnel - just as well given its sales have fallen over 50% year-on-year and it has lost market leadership to Nokia - but specialists are bringing out ruggedised models equipped with military software that, according to my man in the Panshir Valley, can map enemy locations and track personnel. One, a Paravant hand-held dubbed the Leopard (whey are these things never called the 'Sheep?'), can pinpoint targets by interacting with laser binoculars. How long can it be before this becomes an accessory of choice for the malcontents of our inner cities?

This may seem a bit excessive to those of us who believe in the Corporal Jones school of military technology, but as the president of Paravant, Rick McNeight, put it: "We are trying to provide our soldiers with information dominance."

Not something that troubled British General Lord Roberts when he trounced the Afghan Army at Kandahar in 1880 with bullet, bayonet and discipline rather than Palm Pilots. Nor can one imagine the Taliban or yer man Bin Laden worrying overmuch about winning the information war. Looking beyond a rise in demand for military-related IT, other bonanzas are looming for the industry.

Although many IT execs will not admit it, demand for, and interest in, disaster recovery and business continuity services has soared since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Many providers were able to prove themselves in the aftermath and it's likely that all organisations of a certain size in the developed world will be legally obliged to have IT DR plans in place before long. The days when the only disaster plan was knowing the chief op's girlfriend's home number are long gone.

The other Eldorado springing from the WAT will be and security, and personal ID. Encryption software will become ever-more important. And, while the Government may have shied away from national ID cards, it's almost certain that workers at sensitive sites, such as airports and nuclear power stations, will be equipped with very smart ID devices which will contain relevant embedded chips and software rather than a passport pic of some bloke sporting a moustache and a beard.

And we all know who he might be, don't we?

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