Dreams cost money

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
17 January, 2017
Editorial: 66
Fecha de publicación original: 8 abril, 1997

Date of publication: 8/4/1997. Editorial 66.

You can’t burn the candle at both ends

Intellectual property rights (1), large industry vs. SMEs (2) (small and medium enterprises), loss of expertise (3) and time wastage (4) are Europe’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the age of the Information Society. The promise of the future which the world of telecommunications holds is slipping through its fingers like grains of sand. Turning the continent into a common market is not only not solving the problems which one supposes these types of enclosed markets ought to. In fact, instead of this, and simultaneously, this fencing off is establishing its own codes of behaviour and having a deleterious effect on those sectors which should be taking up the reins. The official stance on activities which should be shaping the future is not having its corresponding effect on the manner (and content) with which these activities are being nourished. While, on the one hand, fiery diatribes are made about the need to mark the territory in order to stop our American friends from riding rough-shod over us with their domineering vitality, for a long time now, in the places where the day-to-day policies of the EU are decided, a blatantly defensive strategy has been the order of the day: something like, “Let’s at least save the women and children”. But these are not exactly the minorities that require protection. Or at least, they are not the only ones.

This scenario casts, to coin a phrase, serious shadows on what cyberspace will be like in Europe and what we will put into that box of tricks that we call the Information Society –our particular way of constructing the geography of the digital planet. Jean Marie Laporte, a Moroccan-born Frenchman has been in Spain recently. He has had more than 20 years of experience in the USA company Control Data, of which he has been the sole European director for quite a long time. Laporte, presently in the Open Microprocessor Systems Initiative Management Office (OMIMO), has been a privileged witness of – and participant in – a multitude of battles, so that now he is able to cast a wise eye over the battlefield and point out immediately why the guns are not well-deployed and if they are aimed at the wrong targets. His present job as head of OMIMO (which forms part of ESPRIT) involves exactly that – the detection of projects with good enough lungs and brains to keep their breathing and imagination going for as much time as is necessary to enable their limbs to grow and develop. In other words, so that they can stand on their own two feet and walk. An arduous task, if ever there was one, in a field peppered with “enemy” mines: at present 90% of information technology innovations, from chips to systems integration, come from across the Atlantic.

However, if this were the only difficulty, it would be a simple matter of war. The problem is that united action on a European front fades the colours worn by the participating players and, in the end, it is not very clear who is playing for whom. If we return for a moment to the idea of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it will make it easier to understand some of the hold-ups in the EU that cannot be solved by mere goodwill and even less so by directives.

Laporte harks back to his Moroccan origins, lying on the margins of Europe and from the heart of the rich and diverse marketplace of survival, in order to point a finger at what he sees as the greatest defect of the Old Continent: “We consider selling things as somehow denigrating. We like to imagine, investigate, develop new concepts, but we don’t manage to get them to the market on time. We invent GSM, but it is assembled in Asia. And to sell it in the USA we use Americans. So it shouldn’t surprise us when some of our best brains in the field of microprocessors, computer systems and telecommunications leave us to go there. Here, selling is almost socially offensive, in the USA it is a sign of prestige”. The solution? “We have the intelligence and the imagination: these are our best assets, our capacity for inventiveness is highly developed, but we have to put that at the service of our dreams. If we are unable to create consortiums capable of maintaining and translating that intelligence into the products of tomorrow, clearly there is no solution, apart from working with the USA from a position of subordination. This may sound like just a dream, but, to win this battle we have to dream.”

The hard part of this battle is that the breeding ground is not only Europe. It is the individual countries themselves that are the cause of the lethargy when they hold up the conditions which would allow organisations, businesses, administrations and individuals to take advantage of the opportunities that cyberspace offers and develop their initiatives. We need to dream, yes, and to fulfil those dreams, of course, but if this works out more expensive than in other parts of the world, then we have to ask ourselves if it is at all worthwhile.

(1) Intellectual Property Rights. All European projects demand that the companies and institutions from the different participant countries, pool their efforts. It is here that the crucial problem of IPR immediately raises its head. “How much can we tell “foreign” member countries about our research when they could take advantage of this information and hand over key data to our competitors?” Doubts of this kind are dealt with by simply not presenting the most important information. Or, as Jean Marie Laporte ironically notes, “We can never use the latest chip, we are always offered the old model”. The larger the company involved, the more iron-clad its refusal to reveal what it considers industrial secrets, leading to possible delays in the project or, more directly, to its paralysis. The solution? For the moment, there isn’t one. Unless we accept as a fact that the real flow of information really takes place between North American and European companies rather than among the European companies themselves. Data protection, in other words much-touted net security, deserves a special mention here. At the moment, the attempt to develop a wireless 155 MgB ATM network (a German project), in which all the information will flow encrypted, has come up against the immediate demand of the British government for all European governments to have access to the passwords for deciphering these messages. The German banks, the main sponsors of the scheme, have flatly refused to do this. The result: the whole thing has come to a standstill.

(2) Large companies vs. SMEs. The powerful lobbying of the former in Brussels makes it clear how the battle lines are drawn : you don’t need special intellectual gifts to guess, from a long way off, who is going to make off with the loot and suffer the least losses. The alliance between big corporations and the States in the interests of “higher” political interests means the others will be left with the scraps. Nevertheless, the latter are substantial enough to sustain viable projects of evident commercial impact, Laporte says. The solution? His office serves as a recruiting station where small and medium-sized industries are taught how to make their way around the costly labyrinths of Eurocracy and take advantage of the (scarce) resources which should be financing their projects. “Asking for money the first time is difficult, after that the mechanics of it become routine”, he says.

(3) Loss of expertise. Laporte examines the wound in the adversary before turning the dagger on himself. The USA put all its eggs in one basket with the space shuttle and cast big launching rockets, such as the Atlas, by the wayside. Now that they need them to transport material to the space station Alpha (if it is eventually built) they find that not only do they not have them any more, but, and this is the worst of it, they don’t have the expertise and experience to get them onto the assembly line within the next few years. “In the last decade or so, we have lost the computer industry, our best brains have gone to the USA, and now it is not going to be easy to muster up the expertise we previously had. Not even big companies can afford to create groups of experts to think about new projects, such as, for example, INTEL, which has got together a group of 50 people to develop the chip of the next millennium”. The solution? Resorting to the imagination, the creation of consortiums and systems integration for creating “a tissue of knowledge and illusion”, according to Laporte.

(4) Time. From the first time an idea arises, finance and partners are sought, a team is assembled , the first problems that come up along the way are faced (IPR, lobbies, transfer of technology amongst the partners, etc.), work starts….., by then the party is over. Ideas exist when there is a market. But, if turning the idea into a product takes too long, by the time it reaches the shelves the market has gone. Exactly the opposite of what happens in the USA, where the speed of innovation creates the illusion of a real anticipation of demand. The solution? European projects in the OMI now only need a minimum of three companies from 2 countries to cut down on time (previously three or more were needed).

Translation: Bridget King.