Chirac’s Waterloo? Why Quaero Won’t Win Battles or Find WMDs
Jim Egan «View Bio

At the Musée National in Versailles something odd reportedly occurred in a chamber holding the fading tableau of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Austerlitz.  On a recent nighttime visit there by President Chirac, to find inspiration, he exclaimed that he heard sobbing and the repeated snarling of “The search wars have only just begun!  Learn from my blunders!”

L’homme présidentiel then demanded of a nervous and perplexed cleaning crew “What does he mean?  Why won’t he stop?”  Only the staff’s nearby children nodded their understanding of it all.  Then, just as quickly, they resumed waging high-maneuver warfare (via their always-on handheld devices) against invading hordes of goggle-eyed aliens.

The ghost of France’s former Emperor despairs for two reasons.  First, President Chirac has yet to embrace key lessons from French history that can power strategic counterpunches to the lightning thrusts by Google and others into the richest domains of today’s internet.  Second, he has not fully appreciated how even minor adjustments to peoples’ perceptions, willpower or tempo can create instant tipping points to generate ripple effects across global markets.

Napoleon’s successful early warfighting style owed much to his iconoclastic mindset.  Even his first little-known action of high command, controversial at the time, was to throw out the Army’s “1791 Drill Regulations”.  That sacrosanct but decrepit military bible from L’Ancien Régime codified how France should pursue set-piece battlefield operations.  It also provided La République’s enemies with priceless insights into how to defeat the predictable French.  Napoleon next ordered that his footsoldiers’ time-honoured marching gait be shortened.  This accelerated La Grande Armée’s cadence and enabled Le Petit Caporal to more quickly deploy and concentrate his troops at shifting opportunities to blow through weaknesses in the opposition’s battle lines.

These simple step-change decisions broke with comfortable tradition but, by design, altered European history forever.  However, in little more than a decade Napoleon’s geopolitical position began fracturing and France’s grip on Europe eroded.  This stemmed from primarily his failures to:  encourage innovation in key technologies; pursue diplomatic and alliance-building long-games; understand the strategic importance of maritime power; and, safeguard against his own steadily slowing, rigid and conservative battlefield conduct.

Quaero is an outgrowth of the “1791 Drill Regulations” mentality Napoleon tried to eradicate.  Amazingly, this multimedia vacuum cleaner still cannot organize and index what little it lifts from the cultural carpet.  In contrast, Blinkx (“the world’s largest video search engine”) trumpets that it now has over 6 million hours of searchable TV and viral video content.  Competitors such as the long-toothed T. rexes MSN, Yahoo and Google, plus aspiring adolescents and Accoona, are no doubt thankful the distracted French government expensively sired such a transparent, predictable and beatable foe.  Designed to fight the last war, Quaero will not become a step-change and thus ensures U.S. internet search hegemony for years to come.

Unless, that is, France’s elected leader finds inspiration and creatively disrupts the nature and cadence of competitive EU digital initiatives.  To begin with, President Chirac should correct an out-of-step viewpoint revealed at an Elysée Palace speech last January.  There he stated “Tomorrow, that which is not available online runs the risk of being invisible to the world.”  Unfortunately, this is already the case for what exists online.  Despite years of effort, search engines reach only 2% of the internet’s vast, growing and largely unexplored data jungle.

From that toehold the top search engines very profitably trade upon the public’s mania for internet search.  Yet that supposed popular passion accounts for just 5% of the time people spend online.  Advertising-linked search results generate about 45% and 95% of Yahoo’s and Google’s respective turnover but account for roughly 40% of all internet ad revenues.  As the famous warrior-philosopher of deep space resistance, Yoda, might have summed up the situation “40 of 5 of 2, percents all, does not a fearsome Empire make.”

It is absurd for anyone to imagine that:  a 2% penetration rate of internet data is good enough; the 5% amount of time people ‘search’ online will not grow; the major search engines’ shares of the online ad market cannot contract; the internet and other digital advertising can never command the lion’s share of media spending; future rivals in search will be as non-threatening as Quaero and Autonomy; and, a horde of PhDs wielding sharp algorithms (while astride massive computing architectures) will subjugate cyberspace’s teeming communities of creative and free-minded souls.

Even Napoleon was compelled to tip his signature “en bataille” hat to the nemesis that will eventually unhorse those PhD legions, when he said “There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit.  In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”

Google has developed and deployed an efficient, money-spinning first-generation search engine.  Yet it remains simply a digital machine.  And machines, like cannons, don’t fight wars (even in cyberspace) -- people do, and they use their minds.  Consider the disruptive effects on internet search, e-commerce and online advertising if EU firms commercialized step-changes that:  implanted new tangents of communication and interactivity among major global demographics; or substantially enhanced peoples’ perceptions on the nature and value of the internet’s resources and capabilities; or enabled searchers to discover and intuitively develop their personal transformational potential; or, that could accomplish all three.  Vive l’Evolution Créative!

In the context of pan-European internet challenges, France and other European nations should factor into their geostrategic policy calculations simple ways to enable EU innovators and firms to rapidly develop and deploy ‘weapons of mass attraction’ (a strategic phrase created by Chris Patten, a former Hong Kong governor).  Massive concentrated state spending is no answer.  Nor are arms races involving computational power and bandwidth.  Nor is launching France 24, another (yawn) 24/7 global TV channel, which is to quick-fire an endless stream of France-friendly images and programmes into a now-cluttered mediascape people are rapidly abandoning.

France will struggle futilely to design and develop the strategic conflict framework President Chirac seeks to challenge Google, et al.  The key reason is l`exception française.  On a net-effect basis it, too, is a mutated reincarnation of the “1791 Drill Regulations” mind-set.  This outmoded belief system’s policies are:  eroding imagination; shackling animal spirits; crippling the jobs-forming creative class; erasing or ejecting to other economies the most promising research and grass-roots innovations; and, corroding French identity.  These are not the attributes of an enabling environment for “Digital Age” enterprises.

It is time for French people to again unleash themselves from the ‘Dead Hand’ of history.  The central government can assist by flushing into les égouts de Paris the beliefs, bureaucracies and practices which inhibit France’s economic and cultural evolution.  President Chirac can also draw upon a score of lessons overlooked from conflicts past, including the folly of:  making rigid and predictable movements; embarking upon lock-step frontal attacks; Maginot-style defensive thinking; and, ignoring the strategic imperative to dominate the high seas of human perception, sentiment and culture.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Nations can embrace many strategies and vectors to successfully enter the opportunity-rich digital future.  But governmental foot-dragging and navel-gazing over temporary sociopolitical angst will only generate bitter social strains, delay vital economic growth and yield further diplomatic marginalization.  How much longer can French culture and commerce survive by the consumption of the memory of La République’s ancient greatness?  The imperative for immediate national transformation is clear.  As Napoleon once exclaimed, “‘Impossible’ n’est pas français”.

Few nations match or exceed France’s unrealized potential to become a thought leader on the global stage, or to influence the digital future.  One competitor is Qatar, whose Emir is a master at opening opportunity’s door before he hears it knocking, and then seizing overlooked ways to reshape global perceptions.  In a March 2005 Amiri Diwan speech, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani revealed the beautifully simple and inspired thinking (President Chirac, please take note) behind two of Qatar’s recent strategic step-changes in our world of growing uncertainty, “The future is not what takes place tomorrow but what begins today.”

Before setting a wise course for France’s ship of state President Chirac must also update his concept of space.  In that same Elysée Palace speech last January he declared “… the new geography of knowledge and cultures is being drawn.”  Who flourishes that digital pen?  More importantly, why bother with an antiquated notion of ‘geography’ whose obstacles (physical and cultural alike) the internet overruns with ease?  Military history shows that warring to capture terrain or dominate geography only results in dubious or ebbing control and costly protracted conflict, from having to repeatedly fight the people operating there to retake the same territory.

Alternatively, sophisticated nation branding campaigns to captivate ‘demography’ (people’s hearts, minds and spirits) can win incalculable rewards for farsighted countries and associated companies.  Sir Winston Churchill, despite his preoccupation with World War II, predicted in his 1943 Harvard University speech “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”  Likewise, the reform-minded and highly motivated 1st Lady of Qatar, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah, revealed an over-the-horizon way of thinking in her 2004 Brookings Institution speech “Our objective is to build prosperous minds … a different and more effective WMD:  a ‘Wealth of Mind Device’”.

Yahoo, MSN and Google could remain dominant for some time or, like AOL (which ignored sage advice), stumble greedily into the quicksands of commercial oblivion.  Even the best are vulnerable.  Regardless, the more entertaining and profitable near-term spectacles will involve the leading search engines’ defensive efforts to prevent their joyrides from stalling in the ever-expanding Jurassic Park of internet services.  Operating in that milieu’s shadows is an über-species of nimble, voracious and WMD-toting “EUraptors” intent on tearing into the soft underbelly of the PageRank search methodology.  Vive La Résistance!

Why do EU business, political and governmental leaders cringe from redefining this opening phase of the internet era’s portal and search wars?  Why not quick-march into battlespaces of their choosing?  Why not seize the highground where Google is not (yet)?  It remains to be seen, mainly by creative and increasingly exodus-prone youths, which open-border EU leader or minister is first to heed Napoleon’s mantra “He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat” and most oft-asked, searching legacy question “What will history say, what will posterity think?”  Sacré Bleu!  No wonder the Emperor’s ghost weeps and curses over Europe’s crisis of opportunities.

# # #

Jim Egan is an Irish businessman who leads a pack of ‘demand-side’ digital ventures and disruptive ICTs that have potentially profound implications for the next generation of multimedia entertainment, online gaming, mobile communications, education and the management of technology.  He first discovered and profitably applied the primal secrets of effective branding and marketing as a teenage conductor on a matatu minibus (achieving full capacity every time) that operated between Rift Valley towns and Nairobi.  Years later, with two start-ups under his belt, Jim entered the Smurfit School MBA programme at University College Dublin and graduated with honours in 2000.  There he also created the school`s first “Digital Business Summer Series” and founded its first rugby team (which won the MBA Rugby World Cup that year, plus four out of five subsequent Cups).  Jim’s academic detour spawned a new business model to exploit a hidden global geometry of risk and reward. Tel: 1-770-815-1741.