Supported by banks and venture capital, the underdog French search engine dreams of upsetting the Google status quo.
Could David one day fire a shot at Goliath, or even get his attention? French search engine Qwant, designed in 2013 to respect the privacy of internet users, has just launched Qwant Maps, an application similar to Google Maps. The company’s founder Eric Léandri is hoping to “become a French and then European alternative” to the U.S. giant, whose services are used all over the world except in China and Russia, where Baidu and Yandex dominate thanks to support from their governments. Google holds 94% of the French market share, even more than the 86% in the United States, where its two main competitors had to join forces to stay in business. Search results on Yahoo are now provided by Bing, the search engine owned by Microsoft.
This ambition of becoming an alternative to the big tech heavyweight may raise a few smiles. While the American company posted 136 billion dollars in sales in 2018, its French equivalent struggled to even make 5.5 million euros! And as Google made 30.7 billion dollars in profit (up 143% from 2017), Qwant is racking up losses. But is it a losing battle? In response to critics, Cédric O, French secretary of state in charge of the digital sector, claims the government will continue supporting Qwant. In September 2019, the administration’s 20 million computers were equipped with the search engine by default, which will prevent civil servants’ online searches from being tracked. They will still be able to use Google, but this shift could significantly boost the number of visits to Qwant, which is currently at 72 million per month.
Eric Léandri, the founder of Qwant.
However, critics of this “national policy” remember a precedent — France’s failed attempts to promote its homegrown IT company Bull as a competitor to IBM during the 1960s. Drained by eight years of consecutive losses, Bull was acquired by Honeywell in 1970. The new Honeywell Bull group was, for a time, the world’s second largest computer manufacturer after IBM. In the hope of creating a European computer industry with the help of subsidies, France then founded the Compagnie internationale pour l’informatique (CII) which, in collaboration with Dutch company Philips and German brand Siemens, led to the launch of Unidata. However, the initiative failed because of the group’s appalling management by incompetent civil servants.
The comparison stops there; Qwant does not rely on government subsidies, but on venture capital investments and repayable bank loans. Eric Léandri also says that “the big tech companies were not built in a day, and lost a lot of money at the beginning.” Qwant’s originality is very real, founded on technology and an architecture that protect users’ privacy. The browsing data remain within the device and are never harvested by the search engine, whose results are not recorded. What’s more, Qwant is now preparing to launch a secure email service.
In an effort to accelerate development and jump from 20 to 100 billion referenced pages, Qwant has signed an agreement with Microsoft and its Azure cloud service. Some may see this as playing into the hands of Americans. But according to Léandri, the move is merely a way of strengthening the company’s search power. The agreement is about page referencing, “not about our users’ data.”
The future of both Qwant and Google are intertwined, as the latter’s users accept the harvesting of their private data by advertising companies. If Google’s users decide to rebel, Qwant’s model will step in to fill the void.
Article published in the September 2019 issue of France-Amérique