There have been a number of major disappointments in the technology world: OS/2, the Newton, PC-like Internet appliances.
And to that list you have to add Europe. The continent--with its lengthy scientific heritage and world-class universities--has lived below expectations when it comes to electronics and IT technology. And I don't even have to recycle Minitel jokes or jokes about Germany university students spending 13 years on an undergraduate degree to make my point.
Nokia grew out of Europe, but it's the only truly dominant European company out there. Beyond that there aren't many household names. SAP? It plays second fiddle to Oracle. Philips has reaped millions in profit from CD and DVD patents, but it's the lone European in a raft of Asian competitors (Samsung, Sony, LG, Panasonic, and even Haier) in TVs. Ireland is Europe's primary tech center, but to date it has largely functioned as a continental outpost for Team America.
The list gets thin after that: Skype--the consensus is that maybe eBay paid too much for the VoIP service; and STMicroelectronics--not a lot of people bring up that company in conversation.
More venture capital funds get invested in Israel these days ($1.76 billion in 2007) than any single European nation, and Israel has a population that's about 1/10th the size of Britain or Germany.
And the situation can't entirely be chalked up to high labor costs. Many Eastern European nations became independent in 1989 and 1990. That's before India began to heavily concentrate on tech. Let's face it--if Europeans didn't buy PCs and cell phones, no one would think about them in the tech sector.
But in green tech the picture could entirely change, and here's why:
1. Government activism
Europe has led the world in implementing carbon trading, renewable-energy subsidies, and the other necessary legislation for getting the green industry moving. Subsidies explain why Germany has been the largest solar market for the past several years. Those in the renewable business hope subsidies can be faded out, but they are necessary now for getting the business started.
The regulations haven't been perfect--many believe that the emissions ceilings were set too high and a reversal on biodiesel taxes has hurt that industry--but you will see more experimentation here than in other regions, and see it here first.
France embraced nuclear technology decades ago and is now probably the world's leader. Expect to see French companies participating more in building plants and developing equipment and disposal techniques as Asia adopts nuclear. Nuclear power is not everyone's definition of clean energy, but it emits far less carbon than coal and is gaining momentum internationally.
Daimler and Volkswagen, meanwhile, continue to fine-tune diesel cars to make them cleaner. Diesels have begun to arrive in the United States again. The mileage of many diesels can rival hybrids. Several start-ups have devised technology that could allow diesels to get 100 miles a gallon in a few years.
3. Interest among the population
Environmental awareness is far higher in Europe than in the states. Recycling in Germany requires a working knowledge of which piece of trash goes in which bin. PC and electronics recycling is more ingrained (although still not perfect). Enthusiasm among the population is a tough factor to quantify, but anecdotal evidence indicates that Europeans are more willing to go green despite some of the inconveniences.
4. Changing policies at universities
This is a huge factor. Technology transferred from universities is not nearly as strongly ingrained in European universities as elsewhere. A professor at the Technion in Israel said that the university for years was too wedded to the European idea of pursuing research for research's sake. Commercialism was disdained. Intel built a lab at Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, several years ago, CTO Justin Rattner once told me, because the company discovered that the university had a top-notch processor design group. However, the students didn't really know where to go to get a job.
This is changing. Ireland, for instance, has funded a series of incubation centers at its leading universities and has prompted labs at different schools to cooperate.
"We make sure they (researchers) know that funding could be cut if there is no economic benefit," Pat Frain, who runs NovaUCD, the incubator at University College Dublin, said in a recent interview.
5. It's a way to fuel comic anti-Americanism
Part of the fun in living in Europe is looking down at Americans. Every time I go there I wear red, white, and blue Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt that reads "These Colors Don't Run" just so everyone has something to talk about. And yes, I'm well aware that it takes a wheelbarrow full of dollar bills to buy some breath mints in London. And yes, we have a president who bears a striking resemblance to a confused chimp. But guess what? We have an election coming. No matter who wins, one of those gags goes off the table.
By leading in green technology, Europeans will be able to remain haughty for some time.