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The Short Unhappy Life of Online in Europe

At the beginning of 1995, there was one pan-European online service: CompuServe. Since then, Europe has seen announcements of three new online services, but as the year draws to a close only two exist: CompuServe and America Online. We also have the possibility of Europe Online emerging from the vapors soon.

Language Anguish — During Europe’s spring, start-up announcements from Europe Online, eWorld, and the jumbo combo Bertelsmann/AOL tumbled from press release machines. Major European publishers – with their fingers already in the pies of television, cable, satellite, and digital publishing – were ready to sign any alliance with anyone just so long as they got online before the end of the year. Heady stuff.

In North America, after decades of network TV above the Rio Grande, the language of the population is somewhat homogenized. English is usually accepted as the standard language, despite the presence of incredible ethnic diversity. This part of North America resembles the reality – up until now – of the Internet, where more than lip-service is given to the English language.

Europe, on the other hand – regardless of a long drive for unification – remains a bunch of mailbox- to baguette-box-sized countries; with a dozen languages that have little in common. It is a misconception to believe that everybody learns English as a standard second language – during the 47-year Cold War nearly half the continent learned Russian. European languages have scant respect for lines on maps, and this is a nightmare for online services.

During the year, while the Hachettes, Burdas, Pearsons, Springers, Bertelsmanns; their banks and insurance companies; their partners (such as AT&T, Sprint, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, and RTL-TV); and their aunts, uncles, and cousins formed and dissolved alliances, bought and sold investments, and cranked press release mimeographs, ordinary users – these future, potential subscribers – used nearly free software and whatever Internet provider they could find to dial the Internet. Newspapers published small announcements from major online services and began publishing columns about the Internet.

How can this be? All these hodgepodge polyglot Europeans, shown by marketing studies to desire language-oriented online services, are paying money – and usually quite a lot – for a service whose dominant language is English?

Internet Overload? If these online services ever connect lots of Europeans to the Internet, the Internet will have to cope with even more users, and it already seems a little overloaded. I asked Dr. Christian Huitema, until recently president of the IAB (Internet Architecture Board), some questions.

Ric: "What position is the IAB taking in face of this development?"

Dr. Huitema: "The most salient action is the development of the new version of the Internet Protocol, IPv6, which enables addressing and routing in a very large Internet, connecting up a million of billions of computers. IPv6 is already published, prototypes are available, and we should be transitioning the Internet in the next two years.

"Other interesting actions are the development of suitable standards for improved security and multimedia, with IP security, multimedia mail, secure mail, and real time transport protocols."

Then I wanted to know if the IAB expected online operators to give something back in return for using our very public Internet. It was a dumb question, but a good answer came back:

Dr. Huitema: "The IAB is concerned with technology and standards, not operation. The online operators will certainly feel some pressure from the general public, however. Today, online services provide "Internet access" to their subscribers but seldom attempt to make their own resources, e.g. publications and forums, available to the Internet. This results in one way connections, and is often ill-perceived by the public. We already see some retaliation going on. I know that some providers of publicly available information, some universities, discriminate against the online customers for this reason, e.g. by refusing to serve their request or by serving them with a lower priority."

As 1995 continued, two of the startups announced the upcoming availability of two-way Internet access. But, according to their later pronouncements, the Internet had advanced technically, and what with the Web and other changes, their original plans had evaporated into nothing. A French version of Apple’s eWorld, so bravely proclaimed in September at Apple Expo ’95 in Paris, dissolved. Luxembourg-based Europe Online – with a strong set of content-oriented European publishers – looked like it would be a match for the formidable Bertelsmann/AOL jumbo combo, but we are still waiting to see Europe Online in action.

The Majors Changed Horses — In the end, the majors changed horses and dropped out to think or joined Bertelsmann/AOL – now known as AOL Europa (as seen on one news report) or plain AOL (as confirmed by an AOL spokesman). AOL began in Germany on 28-Nov-95, and the official start for Europe Online was 15-Dec-95, according to a November news release. Europe Online’s Web site is up, but many links don’t work, and the site doesn’t explain how to join.

Perhaps in 1996 we’ll see more online services covering more of Europe. With their all-in-one access packages, user hotlines, and thirst for European content being driven by European commerce, these online services have the potential to make going online much easier for many people.

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