Europe to US: Get Off Our Backs

Andy Grove has logged serious frequent flyer miles this year en route to Europe where, playing the role of enlightened scold, he has repeatedly chastised the Continent's leaders for their go-slow embrace of PC technology.

Starting in March, when Intel's chief executive delivered a stinging keynote speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Grove has not been shy about giving Europeans an earful. Addressing an auditorium filled with political and economic elites from around the world, Grove warned that future generations of Europeans are in danger of being consigned to the status of economic also-rans.

Grove recently returned to this theme when he told the German weekly "Die Zeit" that German managers must lose their fear of being overwhelmed by electronic mail.

"You in Germany cannot simply say I'm not going to use E-mail," Grove told the magazine. "You can't keep technology locked up. You can't close your mind and say I don't like this technology. A competitor will definitely use it."

Europeans and industry observers agree that Europe is still playing catch-up but say the 60-point headlines accompanying his digital jihad have blown the picture out of proportion.

"Maybe we're too busy worrying about more cerebral matters such as creating classic cinema and writing great plays," quipped Martin Pickering, director of AstraSoft, a UK sales and marketing consultancy that distributes U.S. software.

Pickering, who has held key European posts in North American companies such as Quarterdeck and Corel, says that U.S. companies should be aware of the differences that exist between their native country and Europe. He also pointed out the obvious differences between individual European countries.

"Various products can massively outperform in Europe compared to the U.S.," he said.

"Different products do well in different markets: Ford doesn't produce one car for the whole world, the Lincoln Continental wasn't sold here. VCRs sell more heavily in Europe than they do in the United States where cable TV is rife. Sometimes with U.S. high-tech companies there are presumptive market share figures. The more time they spend understanding Europe, the greater reward they'll get."

Grove is not the only American to get up on a high-tech soapbox. Other luminaries from the U.S. computer industry have made the cross-Atlantic journey to prod the Europeans.

During the Davos forum, for example, Microsoft's CEO delivered a kinder, gentler version of Grove's speech but nonetheless urged Europeans to embrace technology more rapidly. And last week, MIT professor and cyber guru Nicholas Negroponte told a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, that Europe was "basically the third world of computing."

Although he did allow that Scandinavia was the exception to the rule, Negroponte added that "as soon as you drop south and you go to France, Germany and Italy, you have unbelievable ... talk about digital homeless, you have a situation where the children are, in my opinion, being absolutely short-changed by their parents, by their government, and by the local situation."

The raw numbers do suggest that Europe is catching up. European consumer PC sales increased 16 percent between the second quarter of 1996 and 1997, according to Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif.-based research company. What's more, Americans who have worked in Europe say their counterparts are hardly living in the technological backwater that some critics suggest.

"Europe does in general remain steeped more in its traditions than the U.S., and that contributes somewhat to the slower rate of adoption for certain technologies," said Richard DiPerna, one of the co-founders of Bain & Co. and a former senior executive with AT&T and Nets Inc.

At the same time, DiPerna said, "Europe has a better cellular phone technology with GSM, way before anything like that happened here