Germans skeptical of technology cowboys

Is Germany becoming a nation of Luddites? That’s the question taken up by Anna Sauerbrey, an opinion-page editor of the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, in a column in the New York Times. 

It might seem to be a strange question. Among German technology companies that EE-Evaluation Engineering covers, Rohde & Schwarz is one of the largest test-and-measurement companies in the world. Xcerra’s Multitest division, based in Rosenheim, consistently makes news. Advantest, through its Verigy acquisition, has a significant presence in Böblingen. The country is a hotbed of machine vision and inspection companies, many of which will be joining their international competitors to exhibit their wares next month at the VISION trade fair in Stuttgart. And there are many more.

Just last month, Germany Trade & Invest took advantage of the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS 2014) in Chicago to tout “the sci-fi future of traditional German engineering.”

And as Sauerbrey points out in her Times column, Germany is known for being a leader in clean technology and a manufacturing powerhouse. “But increasingly,” she writes, “it seems to have taken on yet another stereotype—as a nation of Luddites.”

She continues, “And truth be told, Germany is not a great place to be a big tech company these days.” A particular target is Google, which people call the Octopus. “Günther H. Oettinger, a German official and the European Union’s incoming commissioner for digital economy and society, has assailed Google for having too big a presence in Europe, and speaks of ‘cuts’ in the company’s market power,” she writes. “In Berlin, Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor and economics minister, is investigating whether Germany can classify Google as a vital part of the country’s infrastructure, and thus make it subject to heavy state regulation.”

Uber and Amazon, too, face ire—the latter over working conditions and pay, while Uber has been prohibited by a German court from operating in the country because of issues related to federal licensing laws for professional drivers.

However, she writes, “Germans don’t fear technology. Nor do we dislike America. On the contrary: Whenever Apple debuts a new product, our media goes bananas and people line up in front of Apple’s flagship stores. Most Germans use Google and Facebook on a daily basis, without ever getting sweaty hands when typing in a search term or answering a friendship request.”

The problem, she explains, is that creating a successful Silicon Valley startup (and she acknowledges that Silicon Valley represents what Berlin wants to be) “…takes a certain libertarian cowboy mind-set that ignores obstacles and rules.”

She concludes, “If it wants to succeed here, Silicon Valley needs to comply with the particularities of the German and European market. We love technology, but we want it delivered on our terms. In Germany, cowboys should remain in the movies.”

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