WEB ALLEY - There is an area just north of the City - specifically Hoxton and Shoreditch - that is fast establishing itself as the hub of Britain's e-design industry. Rhymer Rigby reports on the companies and people who are shaping a British version of Silicon Alley.
Friday lunchtime in London's Shoreditch - that means Aussie barbecue time at Deepend, where a huge grill splutters in the fashionably post-industrial alley between the young web company's converted Victorian buildings.
The assembled twentysomethings (all with short hair, designer trainers and khakis) load their plates with tuna, sausages and bananas wrapped in bacon. Inside the offices, the setting is much the same: walls of chic bare brick, multicoloured iMacs and all manner of hipster flotsam - a decrepit scooter, chill-out beanbags, and, bizarrely, an antique aeroplane wing that the company's creative director 'found in a field near Cambridge'.
Nowadays, companies like Deepend, which designs web sites for the likes of Volkswagen, Hoover and the Cartoon Network, abound in the area just north of the City of London. This couple of square miles takes in hip 'n' happening Hoxton, traffic-choked Old Street, and still-a-touch-seamy Shoreditch.
Six years ago, it was a part of London that hardly registered on anyone's mental map. Formerly the haunt of a few artists and the odd courier company, today its bars feature in style magazines, and its cafes have become coffee shops serving lattes and macchiatos. The Lux cinema on Hoxton Square has expanded to become a cinema and electronic arts centre and once-grotty East End boozers are busy reinventing themselves as gastropubs.
The influx of .COMpanies has been a major force behind this renaissance, and phrases such as 'Silicon Shoreditch' and 'Web Alley' are being bandied about. Indeed, some are already comparing the place to New York's high-tech hub known as 'Silicon Alley'. 'Certainly there are a lot of high-tech companies around - it's a honeycomb,' says Gary Lockton, the head of Deepend at the relatively elderly age of 29.
'It's nice and cheap, with good bars and restaurants, and it's only five minutes from Liverpool Street. It can be a bit rough and ready but we like that - and we've been careful not to do up our offices too much. That way it feels a bit more energetic.'
The area, continues Lockton, reeling off the names of half a dozen high-tech companies within five minutes' walk, has become a spawning ground for small, independent digital new media companies. Though, he adds, as companies grow and get snapped up by acquisitive ad agencies or Americans, there is something of a drift towards glitzier, pricier Soho. 'But there you need big money. Here, you get your mates to do it.'
Finbar Hawkins, another yet-to-turn-30, runs Bomb, the business behind such web sites as Channel 4's. 'I moved here because it was very cheap and I knew the area from years ago. And yes, the 'ditcherati' are here.
(That's Shoreditch for digerati.) There are a lot of other companies like us and you do meet people in the street who share ideas and knowledge.
Because it's almost all small businesses, there's always interest in what everyone else is doing.'
The atmosphere, he says, is one of 'co-opertition' rather than cut-throat competition. And this sense of community is furthered by the area being, in estate-agent speak, very 'work-live' - meaning that people tend to live, work and socialise all in one area.
Certainly the extent to which Britain's new media industry is concentrated in London is extraordinary. 'Over 90% of the UK's new media is in London,' says Derek Nicholson, operations director of Seven Interactive in Hoxton.
'There are two major camps. One is in Soho and largely leveraged out of the advertising industry. That's a very 'luvvy' environment. The other more serious one is largely based around here.'
At the moment, the UK's new media sector has revenues of a shade under £1 billion and employs about 20,000, but by the year 2007 the DTI expects these figures to have quintupled.
Some digital East Enders believe this leaves London - and, more specifically, their bit of London - well placed to become a key centre for new media.
For starters, runs the argument, although the UK lags behind America in terms of internet penetration, it fares very well by European standards, fractionally ahead of Germany and streets ahead of everyone else. Secondly, London has long been a sophisticated media city and it is an oft-voiced opinion that, although the Americans are a couple of years ahead technically and are great at the strategic side of things, when it comes to actual design of web sites, they are, in the words of several ditcherati, 'complete crap'. Those familiar with US advertising will concede that this view has some currency.
For all the hype, though, there are problems. Ask anyone what they dislike most about the Web Alley area and chances are they'll start complaining about the traffic. Most of London's eastern arterial roots run through it. 'It is so damned noisy,' sighs Hawkins.
There is also a lack of coherent strategy for the area. 'If it's going to become like Silicon Alley, the council and the Government have to take more of an interest. Silicon Alley is better thought out.'
Another worry is that, as any Notting Hillbilly or Clerken-dweller can tell you, once an area has been 'discovered' for a while, wealthy City workers start to take an interest. 'It's becoming very hot in terms of accommodation. It's close to the Square Mile and has cachet. It won't be the same in a few years,' says Lockton.
Others are less charitable and have nothing but contempt for the denizens of nearby Bishopsgate, whom they see as 'merchant bankers'. The cheap rents that drew many to the area are already a thing of the past.
On another City-related note, there is also a question mark over the availability of high-tech funding in the UK. Things might be better than they once were, but they still claim it's easier to interest a UK venture capitalist in a cleaning firm than an internet start-up.
For the time being, though, life is pretty good for Deepend et al. Most of the web companies that moved in to take advantage of low rents signed longish leases, and prices are rising, rather than becoming ridiculous. Redevelopment has cleaned up a lot of the down-at-heel property, and there is a definite digital buzz to the area. It is young and stylish, and things look good for the small companies that have colonised its Victorian warehouses and alleys.
Ultimately, though, the area's future - Web Alley or bankers' lofts - will be decided by its bigger and vastly richer neighbours.
8 Crinan St. 0171 573 5900
clients include Boots, BA, the Guardian, Hewlett-Packard, Ministry of Sound
8 Crinan St. 0171 278 3336
clients include Cellnet, Mars, Mitsubishi
3 Seven Interactive
St Mark's House, Shepherdess Walk. 0171 861 7777
clients include Harley-Davidson Europe, Royal Mail, Allied Domecq
4 Bomb Productions
73 Curtain Rd. 0171 729 4404
clients include Channel 4, Lego, FilmFour
40/42 Scrutton St. 0171 247 2999
clients include BBC, BT, Sony, Nissan
6 Icon Media Lab
Classic House, 1 Martha's Buildings, 180 Old St. 0171 729 1880
clients include BBC, BP, William Hill
7 Wicked Web 11 Clerkenwell Green. 0171 490 5885
clients include Barclays, Conran, Ford, Mars, Ryvita
85 Clerkenwell Rd. 0171 831 3630
clients include M&S, National Savings, Levis
9 Fire by Wire
16 St John St. 0181 780 1343
clients include AA, Nomura UK, MG Car Club
33 Fournier St. 0171 377 2697
clients include Sony, Microsoft, Levis
11 Aardvark Media
25 Old Broad St. 0171 582 7711
clients include Siemens, Marconi and Ernst & Young
Food, drink and leisure
A The Lux Centre
2-4 Hoxton Square. 0171 684 0101
35-42 Charlotte St. 0171 729 5566
100-106 Leonard St. 0171 684 8618.