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Call it Google

France wants to create Continental alternatives to popular Web search engines. Bonne chance, as they say.

January 09, 2007

SCORE ONE FOR U.S. technological imperialism. Last week, German officials said they were divorcing themselves from the French government's effort to develop a European rival to Google, the Internet's leading search engine. The secretive, multimillion-dollar effort had been hailed two years ago by French President Jacques Chirac, who said France was "engaged in a global competition for technological supremacy."

But French and German researchers apparently split over how best to challenge Google, Yahoo, MSN and other products of Yanqui ingenuity. While the wine-swillers will continue work on novel ways to search through the Net's audio and video files, the bock-guzzlers will pursue a more conventional variant of the current text-based searching methods.

Some reports suggested that German researchers didn't share Chirac's zeal for replacing U.S.-made technologies with European ones. That zeal springs from Chirac's eagerness for France to get a cut of the multibillion-dollar advertising bounty that search engines generate. Chirac also trots out the well-worn argument that France needs to protect its culture against foreign (read: U.S.) domination online, as if a French-made search engine would necessarily lead Internet users to more French websites, blogs, online services and the like than one developed in Silicon Valley.

Memo to Chirac: Google and its competitors have already noticed that the French market is different. That's why they have French versions of their sites that respond to search queries in a, well, more Continental way than do their U.S. versions.

Granted, Internet search technology is still young, particularly when it comes to searching for audio, video and pictures. For example, none of the leading search engines offer a way to input a picture or sound instead of a word, then look for matches online. A new, French-funded entrant may be able to seize that opportunity.

But as Microsoft has demonstrated, pouring millions of dollars into research won't guarantee France or any other entity a big following -- particularly if the technology aims to serve a cultural or political objective instead of raw market demand. The market is highly competitive, notwithstanding Google's popularity, and Internet users are notoriously fickle. A company that tries to prejudice its results or steer its users in a direction they don't want to go will lose its audience in a hurry.

After all, the expectations of Internet users could be boiled down to a phrase that Chirac may be familiar with: liberte, egalite, fraternite.

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