It's a truth frequently repeated by e-smug Americans that we Brits lag 18 months to two years behind our cousins across the Atlantic when it comes to our development of the net. We are indeed trailing behind many of their exploits - an organisation such as Amazon.com has perfected the art of losing money to a level that it will take us limeys many more years to imitate with any degree of accuracy.
The US aside, however, how are we as a nation doing in the e-stakes when compared with our European partners? Are we semi-detached from our Euro neighbours and out there on our own, as we find ourselves so often in the EU political sphere, or have we found ourselves unexpectedly overtaken in a sneak manoeuvre by the Portuguese?
At section e, we have taken a long hard look at the available comparative data in order to establish a rough set of Euro e-quotients. This does not pretend to be an exhaustive survey and would not merit inclusion in an academic journal; however, large amounts of the existing research point in a similar direction and towards the same conclusions.
It seems that three distinct blocs have emerged in European e-commerce: the leaders, the followers and those that are barely out of the starting gates. The headline news is well-known to most of those working in the wired world - the Scandinavians remain far ahead of the chasing European pack. They have taken first computers and then the net to their hearts. (You certainly do not get much more savvy than our net-wise guys from Stockholm, whose column features at the end of section e.)
Why precisely is this? A cynic would say that during those long dark Nordic nights, there's precious little else to do other than muck about in chat rooms, talk and text aimlessly on the mobile, or take the plunge and buy the collected works of Strindberg from bokus.com (that's their top e-bookseller founded by the pair who went on to create boo.com).
Paul Cantwell, a technology partner at Andersen Consulting, confirms this lead. 'Europe has now finally woken up and smelt the coffee, and Scandinavia leads the rest of Europe. Indeed, it's even ahead of the US in some respects,' he says. The Finns lead the world in telecoms and it is certainly true that e-commerce follows a mature high-tech sector.
As far as online penetration via PC is concerned, the Swedes are way out in front with 32% of the population regularly logging on, closely followed by Norway and Denmark (30%). Forty per cent of Swedes used e-mail in the past three months, according to Initiative Media's latest survey. (The Portuguese have some questions to answer, trailing in last place with 4%.)
Anders Ekman of Intentia, a Swedish e-commerce software developer, knows that one of the great virtues of the Scandinavian character is a willingness to indulge in a frontiers-down attitude to commercial enterprise, as any unwashed Saxon who was burned and pillaged by a Viking marauder will testify.
'Swedish business has been culturally outward-looking because of limited local opportunities and we pick up very quickly on trends from abroad, especially from the United States,' he says. In some areas, trend acquiring has led to trend establishing, and the primitive nature of American mobile telephony, for example, is now the butt of many a joke in the Nokia staff canteen.
However, in the midst of this e-frenzy lurks a bizarre brake to progress - Nordics loathe and mistrust plastic. Whenever that collected works of Strindberg or a vacuum pack of gravadlax is ordered online, the last thing a Scandinavian will do is enter their Visa card number on the keyboard. Borrowing money that you may not have just does not figure in the Lutheran mindset. (Part of the reason also is a widespread fear of fraud. Ekman's bank informed him that if he wished to shop online with his credit card, then he should open a separate account and ensure that the limit was set at pounds 100.)
So the majority of online-purchasing Scandinavians have to traipse down to the Post Office to collect and pay for their goods by cash or cheque. This means that if someone wants to set up a Nordic e-business, they have no option but to supply goods on credit and therefore effectively are obliged to enter the precarious world of banking.
What about the Brits? We are in the pursuing pack along with the Germans and the Dutch. Our close commercial ties with the US have made other Europeans doubt our position as 'one of them', but in the wired world it seems to have done us nothing but good. We have over 13 million online users - only just short of Germany's figure and that country's population is one and a half times bigger than ours.
'The UK is advanced in Europe because it's used as a bridgehead by the US companies coming over the Atlantic,' says Ian Thomas, e-business manager at Lotus UK. 'But that means a lot of UK-generated revenue heads straight back to the States.' In Europe, we have WAP to come, which, coupled with the GSM phone standard, could give us online parity with the US within a couple of years.
But talk of the UK, as an entity, could soon be obsolete. So how does the e-world divide up within these islands? A revealing piece of research shows relative levels of optimism/pessimism within the UK on the benefits that high technology may bring. The biggest optimists lurk in the Scottish borders, where 58% of those surveyed look on the bright side, but in Lancashire 61% are actively pessimistic about the e-future. (Incidentally, British women are net bold - 43% of our online users, second only to Sweden and Finland, are female.)
Finally, turning to those countries that bring up the tail: probably the most startling revelation of our survey is what also-rans the French are turning out to be. They may not want our beef, but they appear to be completely lacking in interest in anyone else's bytes as well. Their online PC penetration is pretty pathetic at 9% - barely half that of the UK and a mere 1% ahead of Italy - and their online PC households are a quarter the level of Germany's.
Ten years ago the French may have considered themselves the first wired society and boasted of the white heat of the Minitel revolution. But now the Minitel terminal - which, relative to a well-net-connected PC, seems an Amstrad 8256 to a Silicon Graphics Workstation - looks ready, even according to the French government, for the scrapheap.
However, as Cantwell says: 'Many French will not move away from Minitel because they have yet to see that the net offers anything better.'
But something more than Minitel is holding the French back - their refusal to speak in the global tongue. According to internet search engine Inktomi, 86% of the billion or so documents on the web are in English. 'The French are behind because of their disdain for the English language,' says Thomas.
Eventually, the net's digital versatility will mean that all languages will be equally provided for, but for the time being English is its lingua franca.
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