By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 11/30/2005 6:05:31 PM ET 2005-11-30T23:05:31

Quite a bit of smart commentary came in on “ Can Europe Still Compete in Technology? ”, divided pretty equally between those who say oui and those who say nein.

But first, some clarification on what was invented by whom:

Thomas Tupper, Anaheim, CA: Hold up — since when does Europe get credit for the World Wide Web?

Charles Anderson, Elkton, MD: You are mistaken to say that the compact disc was invented by Europe. The digital compact disc was invented by James T. Russell (born in Bremerton, Washington, USA). This is proven in patent records for the first digital to optical recording and playback system.

The World Wide Web — the software superstructure that brought rich, hyperlinked content to the text-based Internet — was a 1989 European addition to the basic infrastructure created by the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. Definitely European: The inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, didn’t get rich, but he did get a knighthood. The compact disc is a little less clear: James Russell, a prodigious American inventor, held numerous initial patents on optical recording, but U.S. firms never managed to make it into a consumer product.

John Combs, San Jose, CA: That "remarkable reading device with the roll-out screen" is merely a variation of a technology which Sony has already shipped real products. The "electronic paper" from E Ink will also roll up, and who knows -- Sony and E Ink (US-based) may ship an actual rollable product before the Europeans do. Here's info on the e-ink aspect of it:

I’ve seen the Sony LIBRIé (available only in Japanese) and it’s an interesting approach to the ebook. Rumor has it that Sony is talking to U.S. publishers and it may appear in English before long. But Philips technology is in that product as well and as I understand it, Philips, through their spin-off Polymer Vision, has the patent on the rollable version.  

Beyond specific inventions, plenty of readers — primarily from the U.S. — came forward to defend Europe:

Christopher Eldridge, Harrisburg PA: I find the Europeans particularly innovative. Consider the Chunnel, the new link between Denmark and Sweden, the new tunnel under the Swiss Alps. They have the new NH90, an all composite helicopter and also they have the first business jet with fly by wire. They are the location of ITER, the newest thermonuclear reactor; they've built the world’s largest telescope (the VLT in Chile) as well as the Queen Mary 2. They have the best satellite launching record, the best X-ray space telescope ... and I could go on! I find them remarkable — even as an American. We should be so lucky. The U.S. no longer has the tallest buildings, the longest bridges, the largest airliners ...

John Hopkins, Munich, Bavaria: I‘ve been living in Munich for 3 months and my view is that technology has become much more integrated into everyday life here than in the US. The navigation system in my VW van gets traffic information off the radio, displays where the traffic is and routes me around it — and this is everywhere, not just the cities. There’s also widespread use of motion sensor lighting in many halls and entrance ways in office buildings. The high-speed train (ICE) here is commonly used between cities and at a top speed of 150 km/hr, the trip is fast and with the use of the recent technology, very safe. Europe may not be generating many new patents, but they are taking technology and implementing it for use by the general population in ways that the U.S. is not.

But then there were those who agreed with the darker predictions in the column:

Bill: The European mind is risk-adverse beyond belief, and it is hurting them commercially. They have institutes where PhD-types do nothing but write equipment standards; all EU members must use the same equipment standards as well as all other nations importing to the EU. But to meet these overly-strict safety standards requires extensive modifications of existing equipment and numerous tests at expensive labs. We redesign our equipment for the EU and pass on the additional costs to them, but don’t add the extra stuff to equipment destined for the rest of the world.

So the Europeans now have a major economic disadvantage relative to those nations that do not require these additional costs. The Europeans need to recognize that some personal risk is inevitable when you use power equipment, and absolute intolerance for such risk is very, very expensive and probably in the end economically fatal.

Anonymous: Good article, but you neglected to discuss two aspects of contemporary European culture that pretty much ensure that Old Europe becomes an also-ran in technology over the next generation:

Europe has become decidedly hostile to the concept of intellectual property and is increasingly taking a third-world-ish view of copyrights and patents. The desire to abolish the concept of patents for software (an area in which Europe has for the last two generations significantly trailed the US and Asia) is but the latest example of an increasing hostility to technology as a whole among the Euro-bureaucracy.

Second, and even more damaging, is Europe’s addiction to subsidies of all kinds that distort the economic and technological landscape in favor of established players (the so-called national champions) and penalize/block any innovative competitors that might arise, thereby driving out the native-born innovators that they need to maintain their competitiveness and standard of living. Of course, they will always be able to reminisce about the grand old days of Watt and Pasteur, no?

Ihtishaam Qazi, Morgantown WV: One of the impediments to Europe's technological evolution has been its race relations. Ten or fifteen years ago U.S. and European firms needed skilled labor, especially in computer-related fields, and looked to China and India. While Europe turned a little later to those sources, many people from Asia had a prejudice going to Germany or France because of the more inhospitable climate toward the non-white races. Pre-9/11, the doors to America were open and when given a choice between the more-open U.S. culture or Germany, nearly every person chose America.

Ellen K. Sullivan: I share your enthusiasm for Eastern Europe innovation as a potential source of commercial IT fortune in Europe but suspect that EU accession will damper the effect and alter the trajectory.

Finally, the one quote in the column that drew the most spirited response was consultant Rudy Burger’s comment that “Europeans need to reconsider their six weeks of vacation.”

Adrian Staruszkiewicz, Chicago, IL: The length of vacation in Europe shows that companies there really care about people working for them. Who can prove that working with vacations makes this "race" even faster? At Stalin's gulags there were no vacations at all! How many Nobel Price winners did those "racing camps" in gulags produce?  Employment "at will" is not the answer, the same way as working 7 days a week, 16 hours a day, with no vacation will not "produce" exciting new technologies.

Lee Craig, Norway: I was a bit shocked at the comments on how Europe should lose its six weeks of vacation, along with the reference to it slipping into the Third World. One might argue that with the conditions under which Americans work, you’ve already beaten Europe to that status. You seem to miss the point that technology is a means to an end — who wants to be the lead innovator if this means that all your time is spent innovating?

And finally, here’s a solution that Japan is already embracing:

Louis Savain, Miami, Florida: The suggestion that Europeans need to reconsider their six weeks of vacation shows a lack of vision. The most cost-effective way to boost both production and productivity is to invest heavily in automation. Europe needs an economic policy that encourages research in the robotization of the workplace. In the not-too-distant future, only countries with the best and smartest automata will have an edge in the market place. It is understandable that Europeans are keen on retaining their cultural heritage but automation is not averse to culture. A gourmet meal need not necessarily be prepared by a human chef.

Or as HAL might say: Bon appetit, Dave!

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