Insider goes to France. (Industry Insider) David H. Ahl.
Does France Matter?
The U.S. doesn't have a huge trade deficit with France. High tech goods from France pose little threat to American manufacturers. In political economics, the French seem to march to a different drummer than the rest of the Western world; witness Mitterrand's refusal at the Bonn conference to fix a date for new trade talks. Why, then, should we be interested in what the French are doing in microcomputing and other interactive technologies? For several reasons.
First, since the French got a relatively late start in microcomputers (for a Western nation), they have had a chance to look at many things that went wrong in other countries.
Second, the French have a much more widespread system of videotext than any other nation in the world. Currently, more than 800,000 people have terminals, and PTT (the French national telephone company) is committed to putting a terminal on every residential telephone in the country within the next five years.
Third, most software developers in France are active in more than one medium, usually computer software and interactive video; this often leads to valuable synergy between artists and technologists.
Perhaps of greatest long range significance is the French approach to using computers in schools. Unlike the situation in the U.S. where the computers are generally administered by the math department and are most often used to teach computer literacy or programming, the French view the computer as a tool for helping to teach other subjects. Outstanding instructional programs have been developed for teaching French and foreign languages (by Hatier) and music (by Logimus). Other companies such as VIFI are gearing software packages to the school curriculum on a grade by grade level in math, French, English, and other subjects.
Furthermore, the government has committed to more than 45,000 microcomputer installations in schools by the end of 1985. More than 12,000 of these installations will consist of an IBM PC compatible (from Bull or Goupil) as the node in a network of six Thompson MO5 or T07 computers. The remaining 33,200 stand-alone installations will consist of a TO7, MO5, or Excelvision 100. An important indication that France is learning from the mistakes of others is the fact that each installation will include a set of 60 to 100 software packages (purchased, not pirated). In addition, 200 million francs, the same amount spent on software, is budgeted for the training of teachers and professors.
Currently, the installed base of computers in France is about 800,000 home machines and 150,000 business systems. Most home units are cassette or cartridge based, but home users are slowly getting more sophisticated and demanding. Annual software sales in the home market are about two million units divided among three or four market leaders (VIFI is the biggest) and nine or ten smaller companies.
The business market is similar to that in the U.S.--moving toward IBM PC compatibles with software dominance by Lotus, Ashton-Tate, Software Publishing (PFS), and other U.S. market leaders along with a handful of French publishers (most of whom are targeting vertical markets or areas with specific French requirements like accounting).
Virtually no French software has achieved any significant sales in the U.S. with perhaps the exception of Ensemble (from Controle X), a database for the Mac of which about 20,000 units have been sold in the U.S.
Emmanuel Viau of ERE Informatique, an eight-man software company marketing some 60 packages for six low-end computers, was quite honest about the state of French software. "Until recently," he said, "our games were not as good as those produced in the U.S. and U.K. But we are catching up."
The Center for the Study of Systems and Advanced Technologies (CESTA) is a two-year old organization sponsored by both government agencies and private companies. Its mission is to increase the understanding of complex systems and to study the impact of new technologies on individuals and society. The Center sponsors conferences like Cognitiva '85 (focusing on artificial intelligence) and Int'l Electronic Image Week (in conjunction with Siggraph/France) to be held April 21-25, 1986 in Nice. The Center also publishes books, papers, and newsletters on a wide variety of topics.
On a practical level, one of the most useful activities of CESTA is the Learning Storehouse, a library of educational software. The Center has a huge room with one or two of every imaginable computer on which software from the library can be tried by teachers or other interested individuals. The Center also runs half-day orientation/demonstration courses for 30 to 40 people three days a week. In addition, they publish a catalog which contains short (half page) descriptions of some 600 educational software packages.
Apple in France
Best estimates are that Apple had delivered 250,000 Apple II computers and 15,000 Macs in France as of May 1985. Most software developers with whom I spoke volunteered that Apple is the most congenial company with which to deal in France. But unfortunately, Apple is an American company, and when the French government sought a computer for its various agencies, it stipulated that it must be French-built. Thus it was that IBM is now the standard in France; well, not IBM per se, but two PC compatibles, one made by Bull and the other by Goupil. Now, of course, everyone seems to be getting on the PC bandwagon. Too bad.
In any event, Apple continues marching to a different drummer and, fortunately, is supported by many active and innovative software developers. For example, Version Soft makes three programs for the Apple II family that make excellent use of the mouse and pull-down menus: Epistole (word processor), Version Calc, and Budget Familial (budget management tool). Memword from Memsoft features word hyphenation, imbedded math calculations, and mailing list capabilities. Max the Globe Trotter from Micro Lingua provides an easy way to learn a foreign language.
Also exciting are the scores of packages for the Mac. At the SICOB show in Paris in May I counted no fewer than 36 new software packages for the Mac ranging from file managers (10) to graphics packages (6) to vertical applications for specific industries (5). Moreover, Lotus was even showing the French version of the long-awaited Jazz integrated package.
Pierre Berloquin, a noted designer of pencil-and-paper and board games, turned to computers in 1979 because "they're nicer to work with, and the market is better." He does development work for both institutions (Paris Metro, national telephone company, and various museums) and commercial software publishers.
I was impressed with Moderato, a music composition system for the Apple II family. It employs standard musical notation, is incredibly easy to use, and allows the use of sound effects along with the music.
A brand new product for the Mac is Fairy Chess which plays normal chess (with any style chessmen), but also allows the addition of "fairy" pieces at any point in the game. You can edit a piece to look like anything you want and give it a bizarre pattern of movement, or you can use any of the 12 built-in fairy pieces. The game is published by ACI.
In a quaint five-story house at 12 rue de la Montagne Ste. Genevieve, Gerard Dahan has established one of the most successful software development companies in France. Latest product from Gerard's group of 30 is Le Lisp, a fast and powerful dialect of Lisp for the Mac. To accompany Le Lisp, ACT is now working on AI Kit, a generator of expert systems for the non-specialist computer user.
ACT has also developed Logo for nine different computers. An interesting add-on package, Logo Lutins, permits the user to manipulate up to 32 objects in 16 colors. Dahan feels it is important for Logo users to, as he puts it, "escape from the turtle shell;" thus, he emphasizes output other than turtle graphics.
Infogrames is the type of hot shot young software company that seemed to epitomize the industry here back in 1981-82. Started just two years ago by Bruno Bonnell and Christopher Sapet, the company employs 30 people today and expects to add 20 more by year's end. In 1984, its arcade/adventure game, Mandragore, won first prize in a competition sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.
I was intrigued by Eurospace, a rather serious simulation developed by Infogrames and distributed by VIFI. It makes you the manager of a space shot by the new European space consortium. The mission has four phases: launch, docking with an orbiting space lab, experiments in space, and re-entry and landing. It is highly realistic, and it takes a great deal of practice to complete a mission successfully.
Like most French companies, Infogrames is primarily producing products for France and Belgium although they are beginning to export to non-French speaking countries and are seeking further joint ventures.
In France, most software is sold through retail software stores; mail order is practically non-existent because prices aren't discounted and the mails are slow...The best selling French built home computer with about 40% of the market is the Thompson T-07. It uses a 6809 chip, has a cartridge slot, rubberized Chiclet-style keyboard, built-in light pen, and Microsoft Basic...Information networks are beginning to catch on in France. Calvados, a network for Apple owners has nearly 3000 subscribers.
The May '85 SICOB show had 316 exhibitors showing hardware (microcomputers and peripherals) and 226 software publishers. Nearly 150,000 visitors attended the show ... Many software vendors were showing vertical applications. For example, I saw packages aimed at clothing manufacturers, hair dressers, shipping agents, florists, and lawyers ... Four multi-user systems were competing for attention: Concurrent DOS, Unix, Prolog, and Mercure.
And you think they'll really buy it: Activision's ad for The Music Studio in French magazines shows the opening bars of "The Star Spangled Banner" ... MSX has debuted in France with Sony, Toshiba, Sanyo, Canon, Gold Star, and several others all hitting the market this year with under $350 systems.
Computer games are alive and well in France. Loriciels, a two-year old firm, sold 200,000 units last year. Their line includes 96 games for eight computers. I especially liked Scoop, an adventure game in which you take the role of a journalist ... But it sells: the Alice 90 home computer from Matra comes in a triangular red plastic case with both corners lopped off. The mpu used in the Alice line is a 6803 ... Even more unusual is the Excelvision line of home computers built around an 8-bit TI TMS 7000 chip. They use the same Basic as the TI CC40, but most software comes on tiny plug-in ROM cartridges.
France is the only country I know of in which one of the government agencies responsible for personal computer applications is the Ministry of Culture. Acting as a catalyst between software developers and banks (who administer most of the venture capital in France), the Ministry encourages small software firms to pursue a wide variety of innovative projects which they view as a form of modern culture ... Another more subtle indication that culture is changing in France is the fact that the last remaining classical music radio station in Paris changed its format to modern rock in 1984 ... More next month.