Top 10 IT locations

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Top 10 IT locations

The information technology revolution may have spread around the globe but there are still some areas that are more IT friendly than most.

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A decade ago people were talking about the death of distance, and how the internet would make physical geography irrelevant.

This has not come to pass; there are still places around the world that are hubs of technology just as there are hubs for air travel, product manufacturing or natural resource exploitation.

This was a tough list to compile. The number one choice was obvious but the rest of it was a hard fought battle. Shaun's insistance on one area of the north eastern US was matched by my determination to see Bletchley recognised. We're a tight team here but it nearly came to blows.

So if you think there are areas that we've missed the comment section is there for you. Personally I'd have liked to see the Cambridge area of the UK make the list, but it was eclipsed by its namesake.

Honourable mention - Bletchley Park

Iain Thomson: Bletchley Park, or Station X as it was known in the Second World War, gets a mention because it's where it all began.

It was the birthplace of computer encryption technologies, location to one of the earliest programmable computers and was home to the great Alan Turing, a pivotal figure in the development of computer software.

The irony is that until the 1970s virtually no-one knew it existed, since it was so secret during the war and the workers all kept their mouths shut. By chance I was lucky enough to meet one of the people who worked there during the war in the 1990s and listened enthralled, not just by the tales of the code breaking days but also at the quiet heroism of the woman telling me about it.

Although it's been neglected of late a visit to Bletchley is still a memorable experience for a computer enthusiast. It's got a real sense of history about it and one almost expects to turn a corner and bump into Tommy Flowers carrying a handful of electronics for Colossus or see Turing sitting on a bench doing the Daily Telegraph crossword.

Shaun Nichols: It is great to see all the work and money that is finally being put into restoring Bletchley Park.

Even to us folks over here in the colonies, the facility holds a special place due to the awesome amount of technological achievement that it generated in such a short amount of time. Not only were many technologies we see today pioneered at the facility, but its work during World War II is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives.

The computing industry is by its nature very quick to move forward and discard the seemingly "obsolete" things. This is what makes Bletchley Park so special, it is one of the few truly historical IT locations. Though there may not be any billion-dollar companies or commercially successful devices emerging from within its walls, Bletchley Park definitely deserves to be named as a computing hotspot.

Honourable mention- Seattle

Shaun Nichols: The emerald city gets relegated to an honourable mention because really, only one name springs to mind when you think of technology in the Seattle area; Microsoft.

Granted, Microsoft is the biggest name in the technology business and its own campus in Redmond employs a city's worth of people, but the company's dominance of the city keeps Seattle out of the top ten.

That said, Microsoft's presence has also created a small ecosystem of analysts and partner developers in the Seattle area. And the contributions Starbuck's has made to the lives of developers and IT workers around the world might just make them an honorary technology company.

Iain Thomson: OK, Microsoft is the top dog in Seattle, but only because Seattle Computer Products put them there.

Back when Microsoft was just a small company they got the contract to produce the operating system for IBM's new PC by buying an operating system called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) from a small firm in the city. The rest is, as they say, history.

Maybe it's the constant rain that keeps people indoors and coding, or the coffee fetish in the city (want to feel like a freak in Seattle? Ask for tea) but the city deserves its spot on the list.

10. Boston

Iain Thomson: Boston may be the home to tea-throwing revolutionaries but it also contains Cambridge, home to both Harvard and MIT.

The Cambridge area has educated and inspired some of the finest minds in IT, including the founders of Intel, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, 3Com and Qualcomm. Harvard and MIT are both at the pinnacle of educational excellence and it shows in the alumni. Once at college the minds of students can be enriched by some of the best educators on the palnet and it's no surprise that scarcely a year goes by without a Harvard or MIT alumni getting a Nobel prize.

Sadly however, there's one thing they don't teach their students - how to shut up about it. If you ever meet someone who went to Harvard and doesn't manage to slip it into the conversation treasure them, for they are a very rare person indeed.

Shaun Nichols: Us free-thinking beanbag chair-loving, t-shirt to work-wearing, hippy geek types over here on the West Coast may like to "shift paradigms" and whatnot, but most of the stuff that allows Silicon Valley geeks to develop their wares was either invented or perfected back in those stuffy insititutions of "higher learning" back on the East Coast.

As Iain notes, those schools do have a history of staying on you like a bad tattoo you woke up with after spring break. It seems that it's just about impossible to mention Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates without noting that they went to Harvard.

And just about every prominent researcher to come out of MIT seems to keep that status as a sort of title. On the other hand, who remembers or even cares about what colleges Larry Ellison or Steve Wozniak went to? (Illinois and UC Berkeley, in case you were wondering.)

9. Romania

Shaun Nichols: All of Eastern Europe seems to be teeming with talented software developers, and nowhere is that the case more than Romania. But why?

Last year I was speaking with an executive from a Romanian security firm about the abundance of programming talent in his home country. He said that much of it dates back to the country's days within the Soviet Bloc. Under the Ceausescu regime, college students were basically forced to choose between majoring in computer science or finance.

Furthermore, trade embargoes forced the country to develop much of its own technology. The result was a generation of savvy programmers seasoned in writing and working with large, complex programs.

Of course, this hasn't entirely been a good thing for the world. A glut of programming talent makes fertile ground for cybercrime, particularly in a region still struggling to emerge economically from the ruins of communist rule. As such, Romania has also built up a reputation as a hotspot for malware writers and other online criminals.

Even that, however, has brought some good. With the talented hackers have come some very smart security researchers. Romanian developers have often taken the forefront in such things as heuristics and vulnerability detection.

Iain Thomson: When Microsoft decided to get into the antivirus industry who did it buy? A Romanian company.

As Shaun has pointed out Ceausescu's edicts forced many Romanians into the IT sector, and the results have been mixed. On the one hand there are plenty of Romanians who have left the country to become leading figures in the IT industry. On the other hand there's a lot of malware coming out of this little state.

Romania is a perfect storm of malware. It has lots of good coders, a fairly well wired society and local corruption, which allows malware kingpins to live in peace. You can't expect a local police chief to enforce the law when he's being paid fifty times his government salary to look the other way.

8. Fort Meade, Maryland

Iain Thomson: Fort Meade isn't a name that springs to mind at first but I wanted it on the list because it contains the headquarters of the top guns of IT – the National Security Agency (NSA).

The NSA (or No Such Agency as it is sometimes known for its secretive nature) is the computer and intelligence arm of the US military and routinely scoops the best and the brightest to work within its organisation. It has been responsible for intelligence gathering since the early 1950s but the computing era has seen it expand exponentially, to the extent that it is now around four times as large as the CIA.

The NSA is also better than Santa, in that it really can tell if you've been bad or good. It's the US hub of the ECHELON intelligence gathering system, which can monitor pretty much any phone call, fax or email on the planet, something that causes concern elsewhere in the world and is a boon to writers of popular fiction.

It also helps to develop encryption standards such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) that are used by all of us. It also funds academic research, although this has caused some problems as it occasionally asks some researchers to bury their results if they stumble across something potentially disruptive.

Shaun Nichols: More than anything else, the government's needs for newer and better technology have fostered the growth of the IT industry in the US. It's why many of the country's top technological centres are often built around major military facilities or government research centres.

The government likes to employ the best and brightest for its research and development, and after leaving, those same researchers and developers often put the knowledge they have acquired to use in the private sector.

The famous Xerox Palo Alto Research Center got many of its top minds from nearby government research facilities, and technological hubs in places like Denver Colorado were largely formed by companies that were either contracting or working directly for the government and/or military.

Many people like to say that the people behind next big wave of IT innovations will come from MIT and Stanford, but it is just as likely that they will come out of the NSA offices in Fort Meade. In fact, one can put forward a pretty strong case that Facebook is already ripping off ECHELON with some of its latest features.

7. Finland

Shaun Nichols: Okay, so the weather may be terrible and the food not much better, but Finland has still carved out a niche as one of the better places to be a geek. Sweden has beautiful women, Norway has death metal bands and Finland has computer geeks. Scandinavia is divided up much like a high school cafeteria in that sense.

First off, it's the home to one of the kings of all geekdom, Mr. Linus Torvalds. The Linux creator shares a homeland with mobile phone titan Nokia and aptly-named security software vendor F-Secure. All in all, an impressive collection of computing talent from a country better-known for skiing and hockey players.

Iain Thomson: Oh Shaun, trust me, the stereotypes aren't true. There are plenty of ugly women in Sweden, Norway has spawned some excellent, quiet, music like the Kings of Convenience and there are people in Finland who aren't geeks.

Nevertheless Finland has proven a generator of IT innovation that far outweighs its population or size. Part of this is due to the fact that education is largely free there, so the populace is highly skilled and technically very switched on.

Far more, I think, is down to the character of the Finns. They are very independent. They have their own industries and a walk down the high street in Helsinki is refreshingly free from chain stores found in most of the West.

It came as no surprise that Linux was developed in Finland, nor that the world's most successful mobile phone company comes from there. This is a land that says “Helvetti” to rules and makes them up as they go along, and I admire them tremendously for that.

6. Zhongguancun, China

Iain Thomson: In the late 1970s relations between China and the US were on the up and a Chinese man, Chen Chunxian, was invited to visit the US on a cultural exchange. During his visit he saw Silicon Valley and was so impressed he decided to do something similar at home.

The result is Zhongguancun, a city that has only existed for half a century but is already the hub of China's IT industry. Zhongguancun, or to give it its proper name "Beijing High-Technology Industry Development Experimental Zone," is built around seven technology hubs and is home to companies like Lenovo and Baidu as well as Western imports. Microsoft is building its Chinese headquarters there for example.

Anyone who thinks China is still a communist country is kidding themselves. Sure, the leadership can reminisce about the Long March but China's youth are more capitalist than anyone else on the planet and they are very, very good at it. As we move from the American century to the Chinese one Zhongguancun is a sign of things to come.

Shaun Nichols: For all the talk about the manufacturing musclepower posessed by China, there is also a very formidable high-tech sector emerging. One of the reasons for this is also why China is gaining a sizable amount of infamy with foreign vendors- authorities pay very little attention to intellectual property rights. Markets carry a bounty of pirated software and products which are often blatant knockoffs of more expensive products.

This has improved in recent years, with the Chinese government agreeing to step up enforcement of laws against copyright violation, but it is still something that has in the past and could in the future sour many technology firms from jumping wholeheartedly into China.

The other thing which will be interesting to watch is the government's handling of censorship. Free speech and access to information is one of the keys to innovation, and with more and more software switching to the internet-based model, the "Great Firewall" in China could soon go from being a human rights issue to a major hindrance to the growth of the country's IT sector.

Read on to page two for the top five IT locations.

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