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Euro Online Goes Native

The cyberworld is awaiting next month’s launch of the first wholly European online service, Europe Online. Amid the staggered waves of carpetbagging Americans who have come here to sell their data pipelines, several market truths for the Old World have become clear:

* The likes of Compuserve, America Online and the Microsoft Network are confronting a territory made tougher by its much lower computer and modem penetration than they are used to in the United States.

* Online competitors, striving to present themselves as the most authentically European service, will have to offer language-and culture-specific products to entice potential subscribers.

* And, as in the U.S., the onliners say their marketing strategies can be summed up in three words: content, content and content.

In France, for example, the services are holding talks with magazines, airlines, TV networks and other “content providers, ” said French Microsoft Network manager Francois Bogacz. With many yet to be partnered, “No one is confident who the best (service) is. At the beginning of next year the situation will be clarified.”

Poised for competition

As Europe marches into the initial battles of its online war, Compuserve appears to have the advantage, claiming 350,000 Euro subscribers, mostly in Germany, France and the U.K. Europe Online will launch Dec. 15, AOL soon after and Microsoft is available but not yet marketed.

Until recently, Compuserve offered Europeans the same service accessed in the U.S., but in the past six months it has added French, German and Spanish language software, services and data bases, as well as commercial deals with European railways and airlines and digital versions of local magazines. This, as well as a growing awareness in European popular culture of the Infopike, has increased the service’s popularity and shown the significance all the services have put on staking out a local identity.

“We don’t want to imitate American services,” Europe Online Spokeswoman Monique Feidt said. “We want to be a European service – The European service.”

The Luxembourg-based Europe Online will ply the usual menu of e-mail, chat rooms and computer bulletin boards, though without the income of the much larger U.S. market it lacks the influence and experience of its competitors. It already has seen the defection of some of its founding partners, including French publishing conglomerate Matra-Hachette. Yet Feidt insisted its authentic European status would help win over the public.

Microsoft’s Bogacz acknowledged that his network’s having only one specifically French content partner is perilous, even with Microsoft’s unrivaled name recognition. “Within 12 months, if we’re still like that we won’t survive,” he said.

AOL, claiming European status thanks to its partnership with German media giant Bertelsmann, seems to have made the biggest effort among the American companies to go native. Its soon-to-debut French service, for example, is creating specific AOL content – humor, news, and features about Paris and other large cities – in addition to content from the namebrand print media and TV networks it hopes to announce as partners by launch time. That’s according to AOL France General Manager, Bertrand Le Ficher.

Home cooking not enough

“We’re playing an active, editorial role in the content and programming,” Le Ficher said. But he added that language and home-styled content are not enough to allure a public unfamiliar with the kinds of structures the 7 million American online subscribers have grown accustomed to.

The biggest obstacle, though, to registering new subscribers and inculcating a cyber culture into Europe is the lack of potential customers that have the equipment to go on line. Computers in Europe are still predominately a business tool and, though estimates vary, Bogacz said only 10% of French computer users at home have modems.

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