A politically inspired partnership between the German and French governments to develop advanced multimedia search technologies, Quaero, appears to be falling apart over strategic and cultural differences.
Earlier this week, Hartmut Schauerte, state secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, told an auditorium full of high-ranking political officials and chief executives that the government would end its involvement in the Quaero consortium. It will instead focus on a national programme, called Theseus, to develop search technologies for next-generation internet.
"There will now be separate programme - Germany's Theseus and France's Quaero," said ministry spokesman Hendrik Luchtmeier. "We will still see cooperation but in another form, such as workgroups. But the consortium between the German and French governments is over."
French government officials, however, claim the project is moving ahead - with German involvement.
"The Quaero file is not closed," said Armelle Ceglec, spokeswoman for the French Agency for Industrial Innovation (AII), which funds research for the French Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Industry. "There are still German partners involved in the Quaero project (but) the configuration of partners will change. When you work on something international, it's more complicated than when it's just the French involved."
Hermann Ney, a professor of information sciences at the RWTH-Aachen University of Technology in Germany, which initially agreed to contribute speech recognition and language translation technology to Quaero, declined to comment on whether or not the university would continue to participate in the French project. RWTH-Aachen is not mentioned in the list of Theseus members of which we obtained a copy.
Members in the Theseus consortium, which is led by Empolis GmbH, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG, include Siemens AG, SAP AG and Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. Another member is Lycos NV, which is headed by Christoph Mohn whose family owns a majority sake in the Bertelsmann media company.
German ministry spokesman Luchtmeier declined to provide details on why the federal government decided to yank its participation in the Quaero project. He noted only that the government's initiative is not aimed at developing rival search technology to Google but rather intended to support companies and organisations conducting basic research in areas such as search technology and advanced communication networks.
Luchtmeier was unable to name the amount of money the German government had earmarked for Theseus but said the plan is to start funding the program early next year.
French President Jacques Chirac may have worried some Germans with comments made in a speech earlier this year. "We must take up the challenge posed by the American giants Google and Yahoo," Chirac said, of the importance of technology to Europe's economy. "For that, we will launch a European search engine, Quaero."
Peter Sayer contributed to this story.