Internet Griping in European Whine Country

That great whining noise from across the Atlantic is the crypto-existential mewling about how the Internet is dominated by the United States.

At a conference in Paris last week, a group of French and Swedish Net execs bemoaned American cyber-domination and whipped themselves into a frenzy of self-righteous Euro-indignation. The Volvo-Citroen axis then produced a profound and oh-so-useful policy statement and action plan articulated by Swedish consulting firm CEO Jonas Birgersson who, according to The Wall Street Journal, said, “Let’s kick ass on the Internet and challenge the Americans.”

Whoa! The French have been famous for America-bashing for decades, probably because they have never forgiven us for saving their baguettes in the last couple of world wars. But to rope in the Swedes as their northern ally, well, now there’s a kick ass threat and we better watch our behinds.

I suppose we should expect this. After all, the French are the ones who have erected enormous barriers to American film and television so that French citizens eating their carry-out Big Macs with fries and a Coke can watch obscure Gauloise-smoke-shrouded actors utter vague Sartre-inspired profundities on television rather than the re-runs of “Dallas” which were so popular before they were banned. Hey, whaddaya expect from a country that thinks Jerry Lewis is a cinematic idol?

Fact is that the French and other Euro-carpers are the best collaborators with the enemy since Philippe Pitain gave Vichy a meaning that goes far beyond mineral water. After all, exorbitant telephone rates that punish Web surfers almost as badly as French waiters and toilet paper are not a conspiracy of Amazon.com and Yahoo!

Neither is a telecommunications infrastructure that in many areas has not been updated since the Normandy invasions (I’m thinking William the Conqueror here, not Omaha Beach). Just two years ago, I attended a trade show in Bordeaux and stayed in a hotel with a very modern, new digital phone system. I had signed up with a European ISP before setting off, but when I arrived, the best bandwidth I could get hovered between 2,400 and 4,800 bps!

The manager of the hotel explained that while their digital switch was up to date, the creaky old analog lines that connected it to the world had not been updated in decades. This could be one reason the Minitel still rules. In fact, one of the chief bleaters at the Paris conference last week spent a lot of time praising the Minitel. “Minitel was the blueprint for the Internet,” said Joel de Rosnay, strategy director at Paris’s City of Science and Industry museum.

Yeah, and cuneiform on clay tablets was the blueprint for the modern alphabet. The only valid point here is that Minitel might be the ultimate poster child for the concept that being first mover doesn’t guarantee success. And maybe the French would do better if they were represented by one of their talented software programmers, but most of them have moved to California to work for start-ups that would have been strangled by red-tape in France.

But back to American dominance. Jeff Bezos couldn’t have sabotaged the French better than secretly lobbying for a law that provided criminal penalties for working more than 40 hours per week — and making sure that applied to top management as well. But he didn’t have to. The French beat him to the punch.

And then there’s the anemic Euro-VC system, a veritable Ivy League150-pound football team up against the NFL. Finance in Europe is ossified and oh-so conservative; risk taking is penalized and tax laws make success its own punishment.

No wonder then that we were amazed to read the VC Buzz item about RealCall,

a U.K.-based firm touting the fact that their $12 million first VC round set a European record. $12 million is real money to be sure, but far, far from a record. Europe is going to have to start doing better than that — and doing it consistently if they are ever going to get their feet near the seat of American pants.

The experience in wireless phones shows that Europe has the right stuff to be a technological leader. But they won’t get there by wallowing in denial. And the French have got to learn that this sort of polemical blather might feel good and play well in their press, but it solves nothing other than make them better known for whine than for wine.


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