Some things are reassuringly predictable in the British way of life: The Archers, rain stopping play at Wimbledon, and ICL declaring that it's almost time to float on the Stock Exchange.
But while life in Ambridge goes on undisturbed, ICL's everyday story of computer folk faces an uncertain future, following its latest abortive attempt to go public.
Last week, ICL had to face the humiliating task of cancelling all plans to float, while coming to terms with the fact that a return to the markets may never take place.
"There is no date on the horizon. We aren't even going to consider a re-listing until the financial performance is spot-on. The real issue is sorting out performance," an ICL spokesman admitted to Computing.
The cracks have been there for anyone prepared to look hard enough, however. Earlier this year ICL quietly postponed the separate floats of its Finnish subsidiary Invia and its online training arm KnowledgePool. The company angrily denied at the time that there was going to be any problem with the larger float.
"The float plans are under way," insisted a spokesman.But in private, the firm's management team had been warned by investment advisers that it was unlikely to achieve the flotation price it craved. A few months ago, the figure of £5 billion was plausible; over the last few weeks, this figure sank to just £3 billion.
In the year to March, ICL made operating losses of about £69.7 million on turnover of £2.77 billion. Although it recorded pre-tax profits of £96 million, this mainly came from disposals. And although earlier this year it very publicly rebranded itself as a deliverer of ebusiness services, the reality was that while this part of the business grew by 100 per cent from £90 million to £179 million, it still only accounts for six per cent of total revenue.
Ebusiness gets the blame
ICL has had to admit that its much-vaunted push into ecommerce is part of the issue: apparently it's ebusiness that's to blame. The recent trend of customers moving resources into ebusiness projects has prolonged the slowdown that resulted from companies locking down their systems over the millennium. As a result, users are thinking long and hard before spending on anything.
Yet ICL is committed to portraying itself as a new, trendy, e-firm - and can't let go.
"We will continue our programme to transform ICL into an ebusiness services company - that has not been abandoned at all. We are moving as fast as we can, so that all of ICL will be ebusiness services," a company spokesman reiterated this week.
In reality, however, the roots of ICL's difficulties reach much deeper than City fashion. Structural problems remain that neither recently departed chief executive Keith Todd nor his predecessor, BT chief executive Sir Peter Bonfield, have been able to solve.
'Local champion' takes a knock
Underneath the public gloss there remains more than a whiff of ICL's stodgy public-sector, mainframe-shifting past. International Computers Limited (ICL) was formed in 1968, through the merger of ICT and English Electric Computers, as the last great hope of UK computing: a high-tech British Leyland.
The 'White Heat of Technology' Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his technology minister Tony Benn believed that economies of scale would allow one large UK technology company to succeed where its smaller predecessors failed.
ICL - as 'local champion' - was propped up by endless mandated central and local government deals, and did well enough. But by 1981 it had come unstuck like many other state-backed enterprises; so catastrophically that it had to be bailed out by the Thatcher government via £200 million of guaranteed bank loans.
ICL ceased being a public company shortly after, when it was acquired for £430 million through a hostile bid from UK industrial group STC in 1984. It remained under STC's control until Fujitsu bought 80 per cent for £743 million in 1990, the latter promising that ICL would again get a separate stock market listing. In September 1998, Fujitsu bought the remaining chunk of the firm.
ICL's then chief executive Bonfield shook hands with his Fujitsu counterpart at the 1990 press conference that announced the deal, assuring customers via the media that the deal certainly did not signal the end of the UK computer industry but rather its salvation.
Both sides were at pains to assure that UK jobs and manufacturing plants were now safe thanks to the new influx of Japanese money. And no, the deal didn't mean that ICL's technology - particularly its VME operating system and other proprietary software - would be dropped, even if it was not ever to be deployed outside UK waters.
A float too far
Both sides further agreed that ICL would be floated on the London stock market in "five years or less". The gambit clearly intended to placate patriots and politicians alike, by claiming that the UK's biggest computer company - employing more than 30,000 people in its heyday (20,000 now) - would remain just that, and not some pawn in Fujitsu's global ambitions.
To ICL's chagrin, however, the return to market was never deemed credible by many observers. Then in 1997, the company suddenly got serious, and actually named a day (or rather, a year) - sometime in 2000 ICL would return to the Stock Market, a mission that became something of an obsession with its then new chief executive Keith Todd.
By the start of this year, no formal time-scale had been revealed, but plans were still in place to make the big move in the latter half of 2000, with November the most frequently suggested month.
But last week it was announced that the flotation was off, and Todd, who had staked his reputation on the float, had gone.
Danger signals that the float was becoming a 'float too far' were fast accumulating. Its figures continued to be lacklustre, and minor sell-offs kept getting quietly canned. Yet still ICL, and Todd in particular, doggedly stood by the goal.
Then the roof fell in. On Wednesday last week, ICL's Japanese masters broke their silence: "Fujitsu and the board of ICL believe that it is important for ICL to concentrate on growing and strengthening the business in the next phase of its development without the additional challenges involved in preparing for a flotation. ICL's flotation has therefore been suspended indefinitely." With the carpet effectively pulled away from under him, Todd was left with no other option but to resign. As for ICL, the company's future looks bleak, with a break-up the most likely outcome at present.
What this all means for the UK computer industry is not clear, but comments made by Tony Benn when Fujitsu bought ICL, seem suddenly pertinent: "Before long, all we will have left is whisky and clog-dancing," he warned.
Additional reporting by Stuart Lauchlan and Dave Evans
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