Last year, American book publishers were astonished by the success of Italian Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" -- a massive crime novel set in the late Middle Ages. While a best seller in Europe, virtually no one predicted that an English translation of the novel would sell more than a few hundred copies in the United States.
Outside of proving how difficult it is to predict the literary taste of a public that also makes cat books best sellers, "The Name of the Rose" makes a key point: truly successful media are global. A painting or film or book that works in one country almost always strikes responsive chords in other countries.
Translations of Agatha Christie's mystery novels are best sellers around the world; Francois Truffaut's films have as loyal a following in America as they do in France; and European television programmers are tearing their hair out at the success of shows such as Dallas in their respective countries.
Personal computers, too, are a global phenomenon. IBM, Apple and Commodore computers are sold with varying success in virtually every industrialized country in the world. Personal computers are selling at a faster clip in Europe than in the United States. In fact, the per-capita penetration of personal computers is higher in Britain than it is in the United States.
Personal computers are an interesting medium for two reasons: On one hand, they can be productivity tools that enable managers to handle information more efficiently; on the other, they offer a form of interactive entertainment ranging from adventure games to video-game combat.
You would think that software developers in each country would create business and game programs for their domestic computer market and build a thriving software industry to grow with the hardware population.
The harsh fact, though, is that software Made in the U.S.A. overwhelmingly dominates the global market. Programs such as Lotus 123 and Ashton Tate's DBase IIare international best sellers. What American business software companies have done is to "localize" their products by translating manuals and fiddling with the software so that it fits the appropriate indigenous country format -- for example a pound ( ) sign for Britain instead of a dollar ( sign.
The results have relegated European software companies, at least, to the role of also-rans in their own markets. According to International Data Corp., a leading market research analyst, in France last year, more than 85 percent of the business software sold was American. In West Germany, the best that German companies could manage was seventh on the list of the 10 best-selling software companies. Even in Britain, which does have a strong local software industry, American software rules the waves.
Part of this can be attributed to the fact that American companies have a head start on developing and marketing general application business software. Moreover, they have a larger domestic market and can attain economies of scale more easily. Conversely, European software companies inherently have a much smaller market to plumb.
Still, European software companies should be closer to the needs of European businesses. And, aware that they operate in smaller markets, you would think they would be more export-oriented.
Maybe European entrepreneurs aren't as aggressive as their American counterparts -- maybe they can't get the venture capital necessary to grow a company. Whatever the reasons, the computer store owners I talked to in England and France said that they do quite well selling American products. It seems as though local European companies will be left the crumbs of various nitch markets to serve -- and this is ultimately going to limit the size to which they can grow. To counter this, don't be surprised if several large European companies decide to buy into American software companies to get a piece of the software action.
The case of entertainment software is even more interesting. Don't forget that video game favorites Pac Man and Donkey Kong originally came from Japan. It would make sense that, just as each country has its own national literature, film and television that reflects its culture, home computer entertainment software would have a similar nationalistic tang.
But here, too, the market is a mess. Just as in the States, there are no hit games or entertainment programs that people are excited about. In Britain, the software stores have their 50-percent-off sale signs just as the American stores do.
What's worse is that the entertainment software developed by the British and the French (I didn't see the German entertainment software) is imitative and derivative from the American sellers. There's no flair. There's nothing that lets you tell where the software is from. Nicholas Seydoux, the head of France's Gaumont Films, once said that American films are successful because they appeal to everybody. But French films are successful because they are French.
Alas, there seems to be no French or British software. There is only a torrent of American software that pours over the global market. While I think that's terrific for our balance of trade, I wonder if that is best for personal computing -- especially on the entertainment side. It would be healthier if we saw the software equivalent of "The Name of the Rose" succeed on American personal computers.
Right now, though, that doesn't appear likely. It's not as if the Europeans don't have the expertise to provide this kind of software. Computer programming languages such as Ada, which is used by the U.S. Defense Department, and Prolog, mainly used for artificial intelligence programming, were developed in Europe and have enjoyed limited international success. But for the time being, the Europeans don't seem able to turn the software that they have developed into profitable marketplace opportunities for themselves.