Europe's future search engine doesn't want to be found just yet.
A project to develop advanced multimedia search technologies led by France's Thomson has gone into hiding in the face of intense publicity this week that it is building a "Google killer" that will help to improve Europe's standing in the high-tech world.
The project, called Quaero, found itself in the spotlight following remarks last week by French President Jacques Chirac in a speech laying out his agenda for France in 2006. "We must take up the challenge posed by the American giants Google and Yahoo," Chirac said, discussing the importance of technology to Europe's economy. "For that, we will launch a European search engine, Quaero."
His remarks prompted some commentators to describe Quaero as Europe's next Airbus, the aircraft maker that competes with Boeing in a contest symbolising the economic rivalry between Europe and the US. There was talk of a coming out party next month where Quaero's goals would be described in more detail, although a spokeswoman for the project said no event has been planned.
The scrutiny was apparently too much for Thomson's chairman, Frank Dangeard, who imposed a "news blackout" yesterday on Thomson's media staff and ordered the project's website to be taken offline. "There's been a lot of noise and our chairman decided we should stop making any comments until a more official press event," said Thomson spokesman Philippe Paban.
That makes it hard to determine Quaero's precise ambitions, but the emergence of a direct rival to Google and Yahoo, at least any time soon, appears less certain than Chirac's comments suggest.
Quaero appears not to be a single product but rather a project to develop search and content-management technologies for end users, media companies and service providers, to address the growing volume of digital multimedia content on the web. They will include technologies for annotating and searching all kinds of content, including video and text, and even translating results into other languages, according to a description from the Franco-German Economic Cooperation Working Group.
"The growth in the quantity of information accessible in diverse forms such as audio and video libraries, and soon even 3D reconstructions of scenes, in addition to the text and still images already accessible on the web, will be of no use unless there are tools to search and select this information, either over public networks or in personal databanks," the working group said.
The consortium's members hope to license the technologies for use in products and services, according to Thomson's Quaero website, which is cached by Google. The other participants include France Télécom, Deutsche Telekom, the Exalead search engine, machine translation specialist Bertin Technologies, and France's INRIA (National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control), which will develop image-processing technologies.
The main advances will include technologies that automatically transcribe, index and translate audio and video content, according to the Franco-German Working Group. They will also include techniques for long-term storage of vast amounts of data, and content-protection technologies such as watermarking and digital signatures.
As much as fostering economic growth, the project is also a way to ensure that Europe's cultural heritage, in the form of text and multimedia documents, is available to its citizens through a search engine developed on its own soil, according to one person involved in the project.
"Probably politically what's behind it is an uncomfortable feeling of having all access to knowledge and information filtered or provided through a search engine that (comes from) abroad," said Alex Waibel, director of the InterACT Centre at Germany's University of Karlsruhe, which is developing Quaero's speech and language processing technologies.
"Having said that," he added, "there's also a wish to make search, in a way, much richer, and in particular that involves multimedia and multilingual information."
It was unclear how far the work has progressed, but it seems unlikely that users will be searching the web with Quaero any time soon. The participants are still determining how they will divide up and manage the various parts of the project, according to one source. And Waibel suggested that some of the language technologies he is working on may be years away.
"At this point it's still a planned project; it's not really gotten off the ground," Waibel said.
Still, one analyst said the project could yield dividends if it comes together as planned. Enterprises could even stand to benefit if the project produces better content management and document annotation technologies, said David Bradshaw, principal analyst with Ovum.
"Could a consortium of companies succeed with something like this? Yes, although it has to be said that software innovation has a home, and it's called the US," he said. "It does tend to dominate in that area."