Despite a low key start, the EU's Info 2000 multimedia programme has now hit its stride, and projects are already starting to show positive results.
Info 2000 was launched in May 1996, with a relatively modest Ecu65 million budget, and is scheduled to run until the end of 1999.
The programme signified a change in strategy for EU-sponsored development projects. Sensitive to criticism that too many of its projects lacked commercial value, the European Commission shifted its focus closer to the marketplace and was keen to focus on future uses of multimedia technology that could be commercialised within a few years.
Pierre Van Antwerpen, a senior manager with Brussels based IT consultancy Technopol, has been involved with a number of EU-sponsored projects, and he sees Info 2000 as part of a more general trend to make R&D more market oriented and less blue sky.
Van Antwerpen said: "It is possible to see a progression from the traditional Commission R&D activities, through to the applications oriented Telematics programme of the early 1990s, and now into the more market driven Fifth Framework programme. Info 2000 is another step down that road. It is a more hands-on approach to promoting the European IT industry, and in this case the multimedia content sector," he said.
Info 2000's first contracts were awarded to 80 projects, selected from a total of 477 applicants, for a six-month definition phase that started on 1 January 1997. At the end of that period 74 projects applied for further funding in the second, or implementation, stage.
The EC announced the 29 projects it had selected for the second stage last November. Lewis Orr, the project coordinator for Artweb, a consortium of specialist art libraries in France, Germany and the UK, welcomed the EC's decision to use a two-stage process, even though some criticised this for holding up the whole programme.
"The definition phase was very helpful for us. Those six months taught us a lot, and we were able to put together a far more realistic business plan. If we had been asked for one plan for two years it would have been a real guess," Orr said.
A Commission Info 2000 manager said the quality of the proposals made at last summer's evaluation stage was very high.
"We were looking for a number of different factors. Among other things we wanted to see if the project had made arrangements for copyrights, which can be very complicated, and if there were arrangements for good cooperative partnerships," he said.
"We also wanted to see some understanding of the market the project was aiming for. Sometimes people focus so much on how wonderful the technology is that they forget about who will actually buy the end result," he added.
One Info 2000 project leader, Peter Ashby, an IT expert with UK publishers Radcliffe Medical/Radcliffe Interactive, is full of praise for the Luxembourg based EC unit's management of the programme.
"When I heard of the change in attitude in Luxembourg, that they wanted to back live projects and not just academic exercises, I became interested," he said.
Ashby's Optimise project brings together eye specialists, multimedia publishers and medical publishers from the UK and Italy. The project will produce CD-Roms for eye care specialists, but the real focus is the Internet.
"We had a quite painful amount of paperwork to complete. But my main concern was whether the Commission would support something in its pre-competitive stage," he said. "There were misconceptions about the programme at the start, but I think we were probably labouring under preconceptions of what EU programmes were like in the past."
The Optimise Web site, www.eyeworld.com, will be financed by advertising on the taster pages. The rest of the Web site is intended for eye care professionals, and that will be on a subscription basis.
Ashby is confident of the project's success. "I am an entrepeneur really, and I think this will make a lot of money," he said.
In funding projects with an apparently clear path to the market, there is a danger that the EC is getting too close to the market and risking a violation of EU treaty and trade rules on fair competition.
But an EC Info 2000 manager said: "Of course, we do not want to fund projects that would make the market anyway, they should use private finance, but if none of the projects reach the market that is just as bad. One or two projects are already selling well, but there is always a risk of this. The important point to make is that when the decision was taken on which projects to fund there was an element of risk."
One of the more ambitious projects is Champollion, which aims to establish a multimedia network of European museum collections of Egyptian artefacts. The project is named after the French scholar who founded the science of Egyptology nearly 200 years ago.
Champollion is the brainchild of Professor Dirk van der Plas, who is based at the University of Utrecht's centre for computer aided Egyptological research, but he originally had difficulty persuading the Commission of the validity of his project.
"In the first instance they said no. We were told this was an industry programme, not culture. And then they said it was for European cultural content, not Egyptian. But I went ahead with my application, and eventually they accepted," he said.
An internationally recognised expert in his field, Van der Plas said: "My long term goal is to have a worldwide digital database that can be consulted by CD-Rom or the Internet. But this will take a long time. In Europe alone there are about two million Egyptian artefacts in museums. So my short term goal is to develop a pan-European network. The scientific work needs a cashflow to continue, and most European collections are very poor."
The project will publish its first CD-Rom later this year. It will be available in seven different European languages, and van der Plas is hoping to sell 150,000 worldwide.
Another important aspect of the Info 2000 programme is the establishment of an Ecu17 million Multimedia Information Demonstration and Support Network (Midas-Net). In operation since January 1997, the network links 23 nodes in 17 European Economic Area countries.
The Midas-Net initiative aims to raise awareness of the potential of multimedia information services and applications among specific groups, primarily small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
Technopol's Van Antwerpen said: "The key function of the Midas-Net nodes is to promote the use of multimedia technology by making people aware of its potential."
Technopol won the contract for the establishment of Belgium's Midas-Net node, and has concentrated on providing support for SMEs trying to increase their knowledge and use of multimedia technology, by organising seminars and training sessions, and providing free Internet access for 20 local SMEs.
But Van Antwerpen is unhappy with the amount of money that has been swallowed by the Midas-net Central Support Team (CST) in Luxembourg.
"I think the project has very ambitious goals, but not much money. This has not been helped by an important part of the budget going to the CST. Raising awareness amongst SMEs is expensive, and the Commission expects a lot," he said.
"At the start of the project the CST was taking about 50 per cent of the entire Midas-Net budget. We have asked about this at our meetings with the Commission, but nothing has happened yet."
The Luxembourg CST is designed to act as a central hub, providing constant access to all EU multimedia initiatives, as well as managing the Midas Internet home pages.
A Luxembourg based Info 2000 manager said: "It is important to stress that the CST is more than just an administrative centre, it is the main communicator and facilitator in the Midas-Net project. But the question of administrative costs is something we are conscious of, and I am pleased that people raise the issue."
The source accepted that, in the start-up phase, the CST did have additional costs, but he said these were temporary, and now the CST's budget is within the 33 per cent it was allocated by the member states.
The dilemma has echoes of traditional EC research programmes, which have often started with good ambitions and got eaten up by internal wrangling and administrative costs. But those behind Info 2000 are determined that this time the programme is being run in almost as streamlined and focused way as a commercial R&D project, and that very real and usable results will be seen before the end of the decade.
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