It may seem a bit presumptuous to pin the label of “winner” or ”loser” on a technology project, and truth be told, it’s not always easy to make the call. Then there are the cases where there is no doubt, no reservation, no guilt.
Take Quaero (whose name is the Latin for “I seek”), a Franco-German project announced a year ago by French President Jacques Chirac. He made great claims for it as a European answer to the hegemony of the U.S. search company Google, saying that it would leapfrog Google’s technology by searching images and audio directly, without relying on any accompanying text.
The audacious plan led critics to ask how French and German companies could beat Google at its own game when even mighty Microsoft, despite heroic efforts, couldn’t manage to edge past Yahoo, itself a distant second among search engines. They also wondered whether government subsidies could summon a body of researchers to rival those of Silicon Valley and whether the effort, if possible at all, would be the wisest use of Europe’s resources. Finally, they asked whether the plebeians outside the Élysée Palace, who stumble through life without the benefit of a classical education, would be able to type “quaero” correctly into a browser.
Yes, there are a lot of questions, but not many answers, because those at the top of the project are staying mum. France is the lead country, and its Agency for Industrial Innovation is technically responsible, but it is unavailable for comment. The lead company, consumer electronics giant Thomson, which is based in a Paris suburb, set up a preliminary Quaero Web site last year but quickly shut it down and stopped talking to the media.
One reason for the silence may be procedural. According to François Bourdoncle, chief executive of Exalead, a search-engine company in Paris working on the Quaero project, Quaero has not yet received the European Union’s approval, and if it does, “it’s not assured of continuing in its current form.” Indeed, many details remain confidential.
For instance, how much it’s going to cost. Unsourced accounts in the European news media have talked of spending anywhere from w450 million to 1 billion (about US $577 million to $1.3 billion) in a five-year period—figures that Bourdoncle scoffs at. “I wish it were 1 billion euros,” he says. But even if those numbers were right, they’d still be rather paltry. The lower sum is close to what Google spent just on research in 2005, the higher sum to its research budget in 2006. And that doesn’t include money Google spent on strategic acquisitions.
Another reason for the media blackout is politics. Those who must actually implement the project appear to be distancing themselves from the man who took such evident pleasure in announcing it: Chirac. “People behind it are trying to deal with expectations, which are very high, due to what Chirac said,” says Daniel van der Velden, a principal at Meta Haven, a research design company in Amsterdam that is preparing a proposal to design Quaero’s Web site. “Many pointed out that posing it as a challenge to Google is a sure way to fail.”
Van der Velden says Quaero falls between two strands of French government initiatives. It is, on one hand, the latest in a chain of technology projects that includes the supersonic Concorde and Airbus, both airplane consortia, and Minitel—the attempt to wire French households with communications terminals, a venture that anticipated the Internet but was ultimately deposed by it.
On the other hand, Quaero also has the whiff of les grands travaux, great cultural projects that just about every French president has sponsored. Chirac “so far has only one—an ethnographic museum in Paris,” van der Velden says, adding that part of the agenda is obviously to protect the French language from the inroads of English. “The head of the French library promotes this,” he says, “noting that Google’s program to digitize and search literature began at Stanford University, whose library is loaded with English-language books.”
What you do not have, he adds, is “the brilliant idea at the heart of it and the genius behind the idea—a Sergey Brin or a Bill Gates. Chirac is not a genius. He’s just carrying a flag.”