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16th Feb 2019

Focus

EU spends millions to make next Facebook European

  • European entrepreneurs showcase applications they developed with the help of Fiware technology at an event in Brussels (Photo: © Filip Bunkens)

Uber. WhatsApp. Twitter. Google. Snapchat. Instagram. Facebook.

Many of the online services most popular among Europeans were created in the United States. The EU wants that to be different in the future.

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  • EU digital commissioner Oettinger: "Europe’s industrial competitiveness will in the future depend to a large extent on the capacity to develop high quality software" (Photo: © Filip Bunkens)

The next generation of software needing to be developed to operate features of the so-called internet of things (the connectivity of physical objects), and handle big data, should come from Europe, EU digital economy commissioner Guenther Oettinger said at a recent event on the future of internet.

“Europe’s industrial competitiveness will in the future depend to a large extent on the capacity to develop high quality software and using the most modern computing technologies”, Oettinger said in a speech at the Net Futures event in Brussels on 25 March.

To do that, the EU has had a set of software tools created to make it easier for entrepreneurs to transform their idea into a working application. The project is called Fiware – sometimes spelled Fi-ware – a contraction of the words 'future internet' and software.

However, critics say the project, which is costing EU taxpayers €300 million, is superfluous because alternatives already exist.

Toolbox

Dutch entrepreneur Michel Visser is the founder of Konnektid, a website which allows its members to find neighbours willing to teach them something - like how to play guitar, speak another language, or how to knit.

His company is now building an app version for mobile phones. The programme will need a system that can handle a large amount of requests. Visser has adopted a readily available system from the Fiware toolbox.

“We don't have to develop it ourselves, so we win three months of development. Now we can get the app earlier out to the market”, he told this website.

"We are a start-up, so we don't have a lot of money to spend."

Fiware is kind of like a big box of Lego blocks, said Christian Ludtke, founder of a German company that supports start-ups.

“It can be a web service for example, or a cloud service, or an interface for augmented reality”, said Ludtke.

Public-private partnership

The Fiware project is a public-private partnership between the EU and a consortium of companies that started in 2011.

The software tools that entrepreneurs like Visser may use were developed by European telecommunication companies like Telefonica and Ericsson. The industry has said it is also investing €300 million in the project, which includes online tutorials on how to use Fiware, and local 'Fiware innovation hubs'.

Fiware is royalty-free and open source, which means that it can be used free of charge, and developers may further develop it as well.

Non-European companies can use the tools as well.

“We don't mind if they are from Japan, from US, from China, from Latin America”, said Jesus Villasante, from the department of Net innovation in the European Commission.

“What we don't want is that there would be only one operator that would be able to capture value. For us the idea is that internet should be open, and therefore we should allow for open initiatives that would compete with some proprietary initiatives.”

Proprietary software, as opposed to open source, can only be used if you have acquired a license. Examples include Microsoft Windows, Adobe Photoshop, and Mac OS X.

"In Europe there is a strong potential for innovation, for start-ups, for entrepreneurs. We need to have this innovation capacity in an open environment, not in a closed environment”, noted Villasante.

Grants for start-ups, but only if they use Fiware

To promote the use of Fiware, the EU is investing €80 million in up to 1,000 start-ups.

The money is being distributed to 16 so-called accelerators, organisations that help start-ups grow by providing funding and other support.

Konnektid is one of the beneficiaries of such an accelerator, called European Pioneers, based in Berlin.

One way the EU is trying to spread the use of Fiware is by making grant money - up to €150,000 per start-up - conditional on its use.

“It's a kind of a trade-off. You need to find Fiware attractive and useful. If not, then you probably should be applying to a different accelerator”, said Ludtke, adding that the 12 start-ups under his guidance have so far not experienced it as a burden.

Michel Visser hasn't either, although he is defiant about what would happen if he found a piece of non-Fiware software that would be better for his app.

“It's business first. If it's stopping my business I would definitely say: listen, I tried it, this is what I experienced, this is my feedback, but I'm going to use something different. That's what I would fight for. I'm a founder of a company and I need to run my business. ”

The EU commission's Villasante is much less strict than Ludtke - who oversees the handing out of money to some start-ups- on the use of Fiware as a precondition. Villasante said it was more important that the start-ups tried Fiware to see if it is useful to them.

“We don't believe that all the 1,000 start-ups will develop applications that will be successful in the market. There may also be some SMEs that play with Fiware, develop the product, but decide: this is not for me, I prefer to use this other thing. That's fine.”

Some recipients of the EU grants have told this website that they were more interested in the grant money than in Fiware.

“There are plenty of alternatives to Fiware that are also open source,” said one entrepreneur who wished to remain anonymous.

“The EU is pushing software that is not necessarily the best,” he added.

EUobserver was a media partner for the Net Futures event, but was not obliged to write about it, nor did the event's organisation have any editorial control over this article.

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