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.”
Exalead’s Bourdoncle denies that there is any cultural or political dimension to the project, arguing that it is in any case more modest than Chirac suggested. “There will be no ‘quaero.com,’ no state-funded search engine, no goal, in the sense that there was the goal of an airplane for the Airbus consortium,” he says. “It is just a big research program, for the long term.”
What makes Quaero different from a standard-issue EU project, he says, is that here it is industry leaders, not bureaucrats, who define the objectives. That statement may be more a wish than an assessment, though, because as Bourdoncle himself concedes, the plan is now in the hands of the EU’s bureaucrats, who may well change it.
The designated industry leaders Bourdoncle was speaking of include his own Exalead, for search technology; France Telecom, for communications; Jouve, for scanning and other digital publishing expertise; and Thomson, for information technology. Those four, under Thomson—and presumably alongside their counterparts in Germany, including Deutsche Telekom and Bertelsmann, the publishing giant—will establish targets, perform research, and farm out work to other companies, such as van der Velden’s Meta Haven. Throw in the EU bureaucrats, the minions of the Élysée Palace, and the ups and downs of electoral politics, and you have something so loose you can just barely call it a confederation. Against it stands Google—close-knit, battle-tested, soon to be solar-powered, with a central idea and geniuses intent on seeing it through to the end.
Neither those geniuses nor their representatives deigned to comment on Quaero, by the way. But others in Silicon Valley were not so restrained.
Hal Varian, a specialist in Internet economics at the University of California at Berkeley, says the Europeans’ desire for “search parity” is understandable. “From the U.S. point of view, this may seem paranoid,” he says, “but it wasn’t so long ago that the United States was paranoid about Japanese supercomputer initiatives for pretty much the same reason: control of a critical piece of infrastructure.”
Varian adds, however—after disclosing that he has consulted for Google—that Quaero probably will fail. It will be “too politicized,” he says, and therefore unable to put users first. “How will Quaero handle searches for erotica, Nazis, politics, tax avoidance, al-Qaeda, Basque separatists?” he asks. “The temptation to intervene in such controversial topics will be irresistible, I think.”
Chris Tolles, vice president of sales and marketing at Topix.net (Zandica), in Palo Alto, Calif., calls Quaero a mistake, pure and simple. Tolles, a veteran of AOL Music Now, Netscape Search, and the Open Directory Project, has also done business with Google in the past.
“Fighting Google is not a tech problem, it’s a marketing problem,” he says. “Was competing with Microsoft in the mid-1990s a tech problem? Did other people have better operating systems but fail to win? Look, if you gave a user 10 results from Yahoo or Google, I don’t think he’d notice much of a tech difference now, but Google has a great brand, and they’re monetizing it better.” Tolles allows that it would be “neat” to search images directly, without metadata tags, but wonders what great commercial payoff would come of it. Plenty of European companies will take whatever money the government hands out, he says, and some may actually end up with something to show for it. Just not anything to trouble the sleep of Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
“I have a hard time believing that anyone can take on Google in its core competency and that if it were possible, it would happen in Europe rather than here,” Tolles says. “Let me be a Silicon Valley bigot: Silicon Valley will always beat Europe in everything technological, always. Everyone who’s any good in Europe will come here.”