Vive la differFrance

The French are not like us. They put huge ads for vacations in Cuba in their subway stations. They eat dinner after 9pm. They adore Jerry Lewis.

And, I've concluded after spending two April weeks in Paris, they integrate computer technology into their daily lives in a manner we Americans—including Bill "information at your fingertips" Gates—can currently only dream of.

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True, France appears to lag behind the US in the percentage of homes with personal computers. For many years, this was largely an issue of price, with software and hardware commanding a premium (sometimes 100 percent to 500 percent) over the cost of the same item in the states. That barrier has rapidly come down; I found software at only a fraction above US-outlet prices in Paris' FNAC and Virgin Megastore chains. PCs now are almost identical in price: An entry-level Pentium 166­equivalent from Hewlett Packard, Compaq, or Packard Bell was about 6,000 francs, or $1,000, complete with a 14-inch monitor. Indeed, market research firm International Data Corp. shows overall European PC shipments were roughly 21 percent higher in the first quarter of 1998 than they were a year ago, and Dataquest expects Western Europe to be the no. 2 region in the world for personal-computer shipments for all of 1998—reaching 21 million PCs.

Yet of far more interest, and potential impact, than desktop PCs is how seamlessly computer technology has been woven into the daily fabric of French life—in its phones, streets, stores, and stalls.

Examples abound. Walk into any Parisian phone booth. Instead of a coin, you're prompted to insert your telecarte, a pre-paid smart card available at any tobacco shop or post office. Smart, because it has an embedded chip that knows how much of the card's value remains and automatically debits the card for each call. While smart cards and pay phones that accept them are slowly making inroads in Seattle and other US cities, they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are in Paris, which began deploying them several years ago—to the point where it's difficult to make a call from a public phone if all you have is old, low-tech money.

For drivers, Parisian parking is not a game of finding a meter with time still on it or figuring out which meter applies to your car. Paris streets have no meters. Instead, on each block is a machine that clearly lists the parking time limit and cost. You feed said machine money and it spits out a dated, time-stamped ticket that you put on your dashboard.

Want to know exactly how much that French supermarket produce you've selected will cost? Plop the bagged fruit or veggie onto a scale and press the button with the picture on it of the peach, apple, carrot, or whatever it is you're purchasing. The scale correlates the weight to the item and spits out a self-adhesive label on which is printed the variety, weight, price, and a bar code to be scanned at checkout.

And once that produce has fulfilled its nutritional obligation, disposing of it is no more complicated than finding one of the computerized public toilets deployed on Paris' streets. Insert two francs and the door on the oval-shaped structure slowly opens. Enter and go about your business. When you're done, put your hands in an alcove where sensors note their arrival and spurt soap on them. You wash, air-dry, and depart. As you step off the pressure-sensitive floor, the door closes behind you and the entire autopotty is given a disinfecting spray to make it ready for the next occupant. (Just don't accidentally nudge the door handle before you're done; as I discovered on a previous trip, the door will sense the movement and open slowly, inexorably, and revealingly.)

In some way it's no surprise that the French should be dig-ital pioneers: France Telecom replaced paper phone directories with the Minitel system of text-based video terminals in 1983—a decade before the Internet was a household word in the US.

As much as purveyors of desktop personal computers believe they can change the world, France is one of several countries demonstrating that public benefits of computer technology don't have to be limited to the worship of a mysterious box hosting a silicon god offered up by bunny-suited apostles. Sure, they can be arrogant, fickle with allies, and seemingly only interested in promoting their own ideas—but it doesn't mean Microsoft, and the entire US-based computer industry, can't learn a lot from the French.

Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at

Related Links:

TELECOM Paris: ENST Networks

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