COMPUTING IN EUROPE
Colin S. Boettcher
Boettcher is counselor for international affairs to
France's Agence de l'Informatique.
most histories of personal computing center on its
development in the United States, the world's first
commercial microcomputer system must in fact be credited
to Europe and an enterprising young Frenchman of
Vietnamese descent. Announced in February 1973, Truong
Trong Thi's Micral was built around the Intel 8008,
contained 256 bytes of memory (with expansion capability
up to 1K) and came with keyboard and video monitor.
Although Mr. Truong presented the Micral, complete with
floppy and hard disks, at the 1974 National Computer
Conference in the United States, not until 1976 did an
American firm agree to license his machine. When he later
tried to set up his own U. S. subsidiary, Truong
encountered financial difficulties that forced him finally
to abandon the project.
Although personal computing in
present-day Europe takes many forms, from the familiar
home video games to the multifunction work stations of
large corporations, two factors have slowed its progress.
First, hardware and software of American origin were
significantly more expensive in Europe than in the United
States. Second, language constitutes a major barrier to
greater American penetration of the European market.
Programs and documentation in local languages are a
prerequisite for the success of personal computers,
especially as we descend the pyramid of users to the
non-English-speaking "man in the street." This
problem goes beyond translation itself, extending to
different character sets: in France, Germany and
Spain-indeed in most countries of Europe-diacritical marks
are an integral, vital part of the written language.
Kingdom, more advanced than the other European countries when it
comes to personal computing, can boast more micros per capita than
the United States. This phenomenon is attributed to Sir Clive
Sinclair, inventor of the world's first pocket calculator, who in
the 1970s introduced the ZX80 home computer for the equivalent of
less than $100. Sir Clive then went on to offer the ZX81, widely
sold in America as the Timex/Sinclair 1000, and the Spectrum with
improved keyboard and full-color graphics. The Spectrum became one
of the best-selling computers of all time, quickly selling over
two million units in the United Kingdom, and was followed by the
QL ("quantum leap") for users who wanted business-level
computing at home computer prices.
Sir Clive's entrepreneurial spirit spread among
the British people and gave rise to numerous small businesses in
the development and support of personal computers. In addition,
the highly respected British Broadcasting Corporation, which set
up a series of TV programs addressing the issues of
microcomputing, contracted with Acorn for a computer built to its
own specifications. Used as a support for the TV programs, the
Acorn/BBC micro soon had a following similar to the Apple II cult
and spawned a multitude of momand-pop efforts in hardware,
software, books and magazines. Financing became relatively easy to
find (albeit on a more limited scale than in the United States),
despite record unemployment and little confidence in the future.
British programmers, who had to squeeze the
most out of machines with limited capabilities and memory, have
succeeded in gaining a reputation for the quality of their
software. Their programs do not travel well to other countries,
however, perhaps because the elegant business software is specific
to British fiscal practices or because the original entertainment
software (with witty titles like Mutant Camels from Outer Space)
tends to be written for machines available only in the United
across the Channel, France computes to her own tune as she pursues
a national goal of developing a strong domestic computer industry.
Inadequate software and keyboard phobia are no longer the rule
(even computer professionals were at one time reluctant to touch
the keyboard for fear of losing status). Plans for
government-funded installation of personal computers in schools,
originally devised in the 1970s, have received new impetus.
Extensive training and awareness programs have been instituted to
bring the nation into the forefront of data processing both as a
user and as an industry leader.
France did have successful start-ups like
Goupil, born in a Paris basement with help from the
telecommunications authority and reminiscent of the Apple
Computer. The original Goupil ("fox"), however, was soon
surpassed by other models, including the madein-France Thomson TO
series from one of the nation's largest consumer electronics
firms. Today the major computer manufacturer is Bull, which bought
out Mr. Truong's R2E company and now markets the Micral line of
state-of-the-art micros as its main offering in the field.
One contribution from the French government, a
notable scheme conceived by Jean-Jacques ServanSchreiber and
initiated by President Mitterrand, was the establishment of the
World Center for Microcomputing and Human Resources in the midst
of Paris. It was Servan-Schreiber's hope, and that of a dozen
other personalities from around the world, that personal computing
would ease the plight of the Third World and improve the lot of
mankind in general.
The original idea was to set up a resource
center, staffed by international scientists, that would be open
twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so "the man in
the street" could just walk in anytime and use the various
personal computers (or ordinateurs individuels) with or without
assistance. Plans were also formulated to investigate the impact
of personal computers on young children in Senegal with no
previous exposure to modern technologies and to observe the social
effects of saturating a popular area of Marseilles with two
thousand micros. The scientists ended up battling not only the
formidable technical challenges but each other, however, and some
of them left (including Professors Papert and Negroponte, on leave
from M.I.T. to organize the project) while others were replaced.
In 1983 the center was reorganized and financed by the
telecommunications authority (the PTT), its aims somewhat
clarified and a more realistic workplan defined.
In the meantime, France plays host to the
biggest computer show in the world. SICOB is held in the modern
convention hall at the Rond Point de La Defense in Paris, drawing
as many as two hundred thousand attendees from all over the
things are different again. Businessmen use their computers mainly
in the office, so the introduction of personal computers into the
home has to be justified by entirely other criteria such as cost
effectiveness and task applicability.
As in France, software has been the major
barrier to the rapid penetration of personal computing. Moreover,
Germany has a shortage of computer professionals, and the
development of amateur programming has not occurred. Computers
have been introduced into schools only recently and, perhaps
because of the country's federated nature, on a piecemeal basis.
Another restraining aspect has been the role of
the major computer manufacturing company, Siemens, which in the
early 1980s declared that personal computing would not be one of
their lines of business. Nevertheless, statistics show that
Germany is number two in Europe with respect to personal
computers. There is also a growing emphasis on quality products.
Commodore 64s are among the most popular personal computers in
Germany, with a much greater number of disk drives in use (instead
of slower but less expensive cassette recorders) than in any other
It is here, moreover, that we find some of the
world's most stringent standards regarding such factors as
ergonomy and man-machine interface. Indeed, the German
requirements are often used as goals in the computer design
practiced in other countries.
numerous computer clubs and associations exist throughout Europe,
the concept of interconnection and interreaction by means of
telecommunications has not developed to the extent evidenced in
the United States. This is partly because telephone facilities are
more expensive to use, but also because the modems that permit
such interconnection are often of American origin and not approved
by the national telecommunications authorities.
For the same reasons, the world of the hacker
who explores how to penetrate others' computer systems is rather
limited. Although in Europe there appears to be a more developed
sense of wrongdoing in this respect, awareness of the value of
such intangibles as information and software is leading to the
serious problem of illicit copying.
The parochial approach taken by local
manufacturers is another source of difficulty in the European
personal computer industry. For too long, manufacturing companies
have been happy to sell a few machines to a limited market in
their own region. But with the recognition, albeit slow, that an
international market is involved, these same companies are having
trouble finding the necessary financing to become world players.
What the Europeans are also learning, the hard way, is that it is
not enough to have the best product; marketing, historically a
weakness, must now be exploited to the fullest.
What Europe has lost in the development of its
industry has been more than made up for in the use of personal
computers and interaction with other services such as videotext
and electronic banking. With telecommunications and information
technology now widely promoted by various governments, and with
the maturation of the personal computer industry, it is to be
expected that innovation rather than manufacturing will be the
direction of the future.
about whatever catches our fancy, whether it's wine, women or
computers, we French espouse micros with an enthusiasm bordering
on the fanatical. From my own observations, I believe there is no
nation that surpasses our true love of l'art de la
Consider, for example, our hackers. One friend
of mine is a programmer who boasts that he can copy any software
disk, no matter how ingenious the author's protection scheme.
Taking him up on this challenge, another friend opened up a disk
drive, inverted two wires in order to make the diskette spin
backwards, and recorded a copy of a trivial program on the
backwards drive. A few days later, during a visit from the
programmer, he demonstrated his new software (which, of course,
ran perfectly well when loaded from the doctored disk player).
Then he removed the diskette and turned it over to the would-be
Every few weeks now, when they meet at the
computer shop, the programmer brings in another unsuccessful
solution. My word, but he seems to be losing a lot of sleep!
Because he is software-oriented, it has never occurred to him that
a hardware trick might be the source of his frustration. Still, he
won't give up. Cracking this diskette has become his idée
Another friend is perhaps the most passionné
of our computer circle. His is a very French living arrangement,
wherein his estranged wife lives on the first floor of a
fashionable Paris town house, his children on the second, and he
and his mistress on the third. One night, over Pernod and
Gauloises, he told me the following story.
"I first became enamored of micros,"
he began, "when I discovered the Pet in Playboy. Such
magnificent photographs! Front view, full disclosure ... I started
to dream. Then in 1978 there appeared a French computer magazine, Microsystemes,
and then a second, L'Ordinateur Individuel, and I devoured
them. I toyed with the idea of writing a backgammon program that
would beat top-rated players. I was fatally attracted.
"Then I took a bite of my first Apple,
which produced more than a few dramas at home. My daughters played
Space Invaders and Apple Panic until late at night and got
terrible marks in school. Eventually Popeye, my fox terrier,
solved the problem. He ate their game paddles, and that was that.
At last I could be alone with my new companion.
"I started buying mailing list programs
for my business. None of them would print two labels in a row, so
I tried to break into their codes in order to rewrite them. I
learned Pascal and assembly language. I bought copiers and other
utility programs. I bought utilities to improve the utilities ...
I didn't send a letter to a customer in five years and lost most
"But still that blessed computer called to
me. As programs got more user-friendly, my family started to
behave in a less friendly manner. Then one day my wife told me:
`You'll have to choose. It's me or the computer.' I chose the
latter, and today my computer is my mistress. You see, my friend, plus
ça change, plus c'est la méme chose!"
JEAN-LOUIS MEILLAUD, Parisian computer consultant and bridge
years ago, as a student of civil engineering, I was struck by the
immense calculations that had to be performed in the construction
of buildings. I became convinced that machines should be doing
these calculations, but at the time I understood nothing about
computers. I was not even aware of Babbage's works or of diverse
parallel developments in other countries such as the United
Deciding to try new ways, I built my own
computer with the following original features: calculation of long
programs controlled by a sequence of orders punched on tape (I
started by using punched strips of film); use of the binary number
system; introduction of floating point mathematics.
I began with a strong preference for mechanical
systems, but I did not succeed and was forced to switch to
electromechanical technology. Finally in 1941, in my parents'
Berlin apartment, I completed the Z3-the first computer of its
kind in the world. My work was based mostly on private initiative,
with assistance from some friends. Only after 1940 had I received
sponsorship from the DVL (Deutsche Versuchsanstalt fur Luftfahrt)
so that numerical problems, especially for aerodynamic
applications, could be solved.
During these developments, further aspects of
computing became apparent. My friend Helmut Schreyer proposed the
use of tubes in place of relays. This idea was a bold one. The
development of the switching algebra led to a connection with
mathematical logic. These new ideas extended the concept of
calculation beyond numbers and gave rise to the concept of
Today we can look back on five decades of
developments. Not everything that happened was intended by the
computer's inventors. Even an old pioneer like me can still be
surprised by the its effect. And work on the computer is far from
finished. We must be prepared for further sensational innovations,
with consequences that will not always be easy to master.
KONRAD ZUSE, creator of the Z series of prototype computers in
Germany from 1935 to 1945
INVENTOR TRUONG MAKES A COMEBACK
Arman Danesh - IT Daily - 05/21/97
KONG -- At Comdex France in February this year, Andre Thi Truong,
the 61-year-old creator of the first microcomputer, moved among
the crowd in near anonymity. Perhaps it is the American-centrism
of the personal computing industry, but Truong's pioneering
achievement - his company, R2E, created the first microcomputer in
1973, according to the Boston Computer Museum, years before the
Altair 9000 - is generally unknown or ignored.
Truong's company ended up becoming a manufacturer of
IBM-compatible PCs once the PC revolution started. After selling
his company in 1989, Truong served as a technical consultant to
various governments and companies around the world.
Truong's restless nature eventually led him, more than two decades
later after inventing the first PC, back to the cutting edge of
personal computing. He is the president of Advanced PC
Technologies (APCT), which launched the first working Network PC -
a Wintel-based Network Computer - at Comdex Las Vegas last
are not the only interesting story in Truong's life. Born in
Vietnam when it was still a French colony, Truong came from an
elite family. He studied electrical engineering in France in the
1950s and, as a result of the Vietnamese revolt against French
rule, has lived in Paris ever since.
is jovial, vibrant, full of life and unassuming. And he is not
short of opinions about the history, present and future of the
The R2E was created in 1971 using the first Intel
(microprocessor). We made a microcomputer - a term first used by
ComputerWorld in 1973. The product was the Micral, which is now in
the Computer Museum in Boston. We had big success in France, and
merged with Bull (another PC maker) in 1978. We started a US
subsidiary in Minnesota that year, but it was very difficult to
market after IBM came out with the PC in 1981. In the end, we made
the decision in France to make IBM-compatible computers, but Bull
didn't want to do this. I left the company at the end of 1982 and
started another company called Normarel. In 1984, we came out with
the first European PC compatible computer. It was a big success.
In 1989, we sold the company to the employees because the
president didn't want to continue.
Why should people want or need an NPC?
First, most PCs are getting more and more fat - I am talking about
the big software applications. Second, the cost of administration
is running very high. So when Larry Ellison came out with the NC
concept two years ago, I thought it was very good.
Why haven't you gone the route of the NC (which uses the Java
language and generally runs on non-Intel chips)?
We need NCs, but the NC that the group of five (NC consortium,
including Oracle, IBM, Sun and others) has done will never succeed
for several reasons. First, there are several NCs. You have the
Oracle NC, the Sun NC and so on. All of them have different CPUs,
different OSes. They will never be uniform. Unlike Network
Computers proposed by Oracle, Sun and IBM, the Network PC is meant
to both operate stand-alone and through the Internet or intranet.
In the "L-shaped" console is a CD-ROM drive which can
boot the NPC from a special Windows NT CD. The same CD also holds
several applications. The upright part of the "L" holds
a custom motherboard with a 100 MHz Pentium CPU and built-in
configuration also includes 16 MB of RAM, EEPROM for configuration
storage, a smart card reader, and optional flash ROM for local
storage of user data. Because the NPC does not need a hard drive,
it can be manufactured for about US$200. Like Oracle, APCT does
not want to manufacture most of the Net PCs, but is instead
licensing the technology to other hardware companies. Retail price
should be under $500.
What about the argument that we are moving to platform-independent
software with Java and so on, and it doesn't matter on what the
software or hardware rests?
That is a very good idea. But do you know on which machine Java
runs best? Wintel. We need only one platform: Intel and Microsoft.
Java is an excellent idea, but when Java was written a few years
ago, it was for very small applets. They are now trying to use
Java for very serious applications. You cannot load an applet of 1
MB with Java. When you are working on a client/server application,
you want an immediate answer - you cannot do that in Java.
second reason is that I don't think we need multiple platforms.
Today, there are only two hardware platforms - Pentium, PowerPC,
and maybe Alpha. PowerPC and Alpha are dead. As for OSes, you have
Windows, OS/2 and Unix. OS/2 is dead. Maybe you can have Unix on
the server, but not on the client. The second mistake they (the
group of five NC vendors) made is that you cannot in 1995 start to
develop a new OS. It is impossible. People are talking about the
NC's low price. Our Net PC is the same price. We have a CPU, we
have memory, and we have added the CD-ROM. On the CD, you have the
NT operating system and also all the applications protected with a
So you feel Windows NT is destined to be the desktop OS?
Definitely, because Windows 95 is not good for professional
applications. It is insecure. This is very important. I definitely
think NT and Windows will merge somewhere in 1998. If you
remember, Windows NT 3.1 needed 32 MB, but today NT 4.0 only needs
the NPC, we are targeting the intranet business and what we call
the professional Internet. Next year, we will come out with an NPC
(aimed at home users) with MMX. We are also working on some very
special display technology, and we are working with all the
components of DirectX.
Do people find the CD-ROM drive fast enough? TRUONG: We are not
trying to compete with the PC. We are only developing this for one
year. We expect most of our NPCs, after this year, to run on
digital video discs (DVDs).
What about non-English versions of Windows NT?
Today, we are working with English-only, but we will have all the
languages that NT comes with. We are following Microsoft, because
for 20 years everybody who has tried to kill Microsoft is dead.
You have seen how Microsoft has changed direction with the
Internet. It's fabulous.
feels that home computing is moving towards networked computing -
not on-line computing but networks within the home. He also
predicts that slimware will emerge in the face of today's
So what will be mainstream in the next five or 10 years?
I think that Moore's law (which predicts that the average of a
CPU's power will double and its cost halve, every 18 months) will
hold for the next 10 years. But if you keep increasing the power
of the CPU and it has MMX, you don't need DSP (digital signal
processing) any more. You just need a good CPU, memory and
software. That's it. The business of the next 10 years is 100
percent software. There will also be a tendency to go with what
people call slimware (software which takes up less memory and
space). It will have to come. They will definitely have to reduce.
But if the PCs are more powerful and the disks cheaper and the
memory cheaper, why should the software vendors move towards
Because we need power for the CPU, not for the software. For
telephony and for videoconferencing, you need the power and the
memory to store information. We will have PC servers in the home.
It's coming soon, because a family will have several PCs, so they
will have a server. We have to have something very easy to
administer. Microsoft will come out with something very easy
before the end of the century, I'm sure.
with developing the NPC - which Truong hints is already set to be
licensed to several companies - APCT is developing a new video
technology called Enhanced Image Multiprocessor Technology. At
Comdex Las Vegas last November, Truong wowed on-lookers with
holographic-like video displayed three-and-a-half feet in front of
a large screen TV. As Truong puts it: "We are working to
break the limits of VGA with multiprocessors and two banks of
memory for display - we work on one and display on the
says his prototype can "display stereo video at any
speed," but will not be available for broad distribution for