March 2004
  
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Embarrassed to be European?

Madeleine Bath

Madeleine Bath
securityXML Ltd

An opinion piece

It would be good to be wrong as the EC aims are to be commended. But their process is doomed to fail. 

CISMUNDUS, @HOM, BIP Project, Future Home, HOMETALK, SEMANTIC HI-FI, IST@home, VisionAIR, SAVANT, UP-TV, VISNET and the interestingly named e-HERO were among the plethora of names on show at the 6th Net-atHome conference and exhibition held in Cannes at the end of last year.

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Next door, hosted in the same building was the UPnP Fall Summit. Any curious individual attending one could walk in and have a look at the other. This reporter desiring to take some measurement of developments afoot on both sides of the Atlantic did just that.

The UPnP Forum was impressive both from the technology it was offering and the level of commitment shown by the contributing organisations (for a full report look back at the December postings on this site). The overall impression given was one of energy being expended both by the Microsoft people who were managing the event and from the Forum members. A drive towards mutual goals that were being achieved at surprising speeds was clearly evident.

(Oh, and by the way, I really liked all the Microsoft people. Don't you measure a company by the people it employs? I found it difficult to equate these people with the words I have heard used about Microsoft: 'arrogant, grasping, dominant and insensitive'. I found them particularly sensitive to such accusations and rather puzzled and hurt by them).

In contrast, the Net-atHome exhibition was turgid. It lacked 'buzz'. The booths looked amateurish and were manned in a low-key manner. One demonstration I looked at refused to function as promised and on another booth, the man said he did not really understand the technology he had in front of him and asked me to come back later. Not very impressive!

Back to the opening list of names. What do they all mean? They are projects supported by European Community money. I will explain the complications as simply as I can but as professional bureaucrats have written all the paperwork, it is tough to work through.

The EC having collected all the monies from the member countries (let us not go into who pays how much or why), dish it out again in a variety of ways. In 2002 the 6th EU Framework for Research and Technological Development (FP6) came into existence. It was intended to create the European Research Area i.e. ensure Europe maintains its lead in knowledge economy technologies and increases innovation and competition in European business (particularly SME's) and industry. To do this over 16 million euros have been made available to for 'actions' that support these aims.

17 Directorates-General (massive departments) exist, each responsible for handling work across the member states including decisions regarding financial aid. There is a DG for Regional Policy, one for Energy & Transport, Taxation & Customs Union, the infamous Agriculture and so on. (Learn more on www.europa.eu.int)

The Information Society Directorate-General uses FP6 funding through the Information Society Technology Programme (IST) to achieve its objectives;

Control Solutions, Inc The projects at Net-atHome are all enjoying funding from the IST. Resident as I am in Europe, my taxes contribute to this. Am I getting value for money? As always, just like the camel, something designed by committee never fulfils expectations. The FP6 has no overarching control mechanism to ensure that projects are selected on a purely technological or economic basis. The selection process is strangled by the red tape. The process is entirely paper-based and must be responsible for the death of entire forests. The successful applicant is the one with the patience and time to go through the hoops and jumps of the application process. Those who succeed in attracting funds are those skilled in negotiating the bureaucratic pitfalls not those who have an excellent technological or business prospect.

In addition, projects are designing and developing whilst wearing the blinkers of "my idea is really whizzy and I am emotionally in love with it". All this results in two big problems that clash with the FP6 ideals.

  1. The developments are solutions in search of a problem. I could discover no evidence of any project having researched the potential end users' desires. Would these things sell? Was there a route to market? Is there a benefit for everyone in the value chain? Would they be wanted anywhere by anyone in the 'information society'?

  2. There being no EC level decision as to what technologies with their differing software platforms and protocols, are expected to be commercially successful, each project was developing in a box. Although some claimed to be using 'open standards' when examined this patently was untrue. Nowhere did I find XML/Web Services. How would they link into a larger framework so that users will have a wide choice and seamless interoperability with other applications? This is what UPnP is all about - out of the box, plug in and play. Worryingly, not one project was a UPnP Forum member.

I expect minimal 'integration into systems' and probably very little likelihood of a 'co-ordinated acceptance into society and economy' for any products coming from these projects. How sad. It would be good to be wrong as the EC aims are to be commended. But their process is doomed to fail. It would be better to send technologically educated inspectors with proven commercial experience into companies requesting assistance for an already existing 'project'. These would look for proof of business competence before considering awarding any funding.

Returning to the UPnP Summit I felt both angered and frustrated. UPnP is empowered by what the Europeans see as the 'American Way'. Commercial considerations drive US business decisions in a cleaner, refreshingly direct way. Will it make us money? How? When? Are there any blocks? How do we get around these? Can we collaborate for ease and speed?

Any organisation worth investing in is not going to waste time and resources applying for funding as offered through the FP6. It is going to be too busy getting on with making something that sells!


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