Stefan Theil

Stories by Stefan Theil

  • Crashing Clones

    In the beginning there was only Nasdaq, the American mother of all high-flying tech markets. As the New York exchange took off, others would try to follow. Starting in 1996 with Easdaq in Belgium and Kosdaq in South Korea, a mania for cloning Nasdaq spread from Frankfurt to Tokyo and beyond. Whether indulged by the famously savvy (Singapore) or the merely wishful (Romania), the hope everywhere was to ignite an American-style boom by creating a market that allows small, unprofitable and unproved companies to sell stock directly to the public. Now some of these exchanges are as shaky as the dot-coms they were peddling. Since Nasdaq began to collapse in March 2000, many of its copycats have fallen into scandal, depression and disrepute on a scale that makes the New York original look calm by comparison. On its Web site, Romania Invest offers this blunt warning on the stillborn local market, Rasdaq: "We advise against investing."The shakeout is coming. At a time when investors are...
  • Germany's 'Kohlosseum'

    The tour guide jokes with passengers as the boat cruises up the Spree in Berlin. "This building is an exact copy of the train station in Baku," he quips, pointing toward a towering block of gray concrete vaguely suggesting a socialist monument. The tourists gape in awe at one of Berlin's biggest construction projects, a sprawling mass that stretches the length of 3i football fields between the left bank of the river and the fresh spring green of Berlin's Tiergarten park. Eight stories high, it's a melange of stark walls, irregular columns, and metallic green trim. Because of the giant, oval window in the facade, says the guide, "Berliners call it the 'washing machine'." ...
  • Love Those Wearables!

    Thad Starner first started wearing his computer in 1993. He would strap a shoe box of electronics to his waist and a small keyboard to his wrist and don a bulky headset with a small display monitor suspended in front of his left eye. After a while the other students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stopped gawking and accepted him as just another nerd. Nowadays, however, Starner is looking much more fashionable. He's a professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, for one thing, and his wearable computer looks just like a pair of ordinary black-rimmed glasses--except for the thumb-size gadget on the frame that beams a tiny, bright image onto the lens. "The goal," says Starner, "is to have the computer disappear into your clothes so that no one knows you have it." ...
  • The Japan Connection

    Europeans wondering what to do with their agonizingly slow wireless Internet phones might want to check out what's going on in Japan. The country is hooked--chiefly to NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service. Already almost 20 million Japanese use i-mode wireless phones to play games, send photos to their friends and get instant maps to the nearest karaoke bar. They have tens of thousands of services to choose from, and they never have to dial up: i-mode is always on. They're always connected. ...
  • Getting Serious

    On Saturday, peaceful Switzerland bared its teeth. In the biggest security alert the Alpine nation has ever seen, riot police sealed off all approaches to Davos, the genteel ski resort that hosts the annual network-athon of CEOs, heads of state and other VIPs known as the World Economic Forum. Anticapitalist activists, including militant anarchists, had promised via the Internet to "wipe out" the meeting. The authorities took them seriously. Declaring any demonstration illegal, they transformed placid Davos into an armed camp, turning back hundreds of would-be protesters at Swiss borders. Some of those stranded in Zurich set fire to cars there, prompting police to respond with tear gas and rubber pellets. Even the 200 demonstrators who somehow made it to Davos didn't get very far. When they came within a kilometer of the forum, riot police opened fire with water cannons. Drenched, the crowd didn't linger long.Some 6,700 miles away, a much larger group of protesters gathered in...
  • THE MINISTER'S ALL RIGHT

    The footage dates from April 7, 1973. The scene: a street riot in Frankfurt, at the height of Germany's militant student-protest movement. Suddenly one of the radicals corners a policeman. Wearing a tight leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet, the apparent leader gathers four other rioters around him. In what looks like a well-rehearsed routine, the five overwhelm the policeman, tear his helmet away and throw him to the ground. The long-haired leader raises his gloved fist to punch the policeman. Seconds later he kicks the defenseless cop as he lies on the ground.That cop-kicking radical was Joschka Fischer, currently Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor. A Marxist in his youth, Fischer later joined the pacifist Green Party, which now governs Germany with the Social Democrats. As shocking as the TV footage--dug up earlier this month by the German weekly Stern--may be, Fischer's radical past has never hurt him. Not only has the 52-year-old dutifully repented his past sins,...
  • Bluetooth's Connection

    You're a busy person who likes to work on the go. What must your life be like? Say you just bought a new Nokia cell phone and, naturally, you want to use it to get a wireless Internet hookup for your Toshiba laptop. You go out and buy a special cable (which only Nokia makes) to connect the two devices. Then you spend hours downloading driver software, installing it and fiddling with the settings. At last the online connection works. The next day, as your bullet train leaves the station, you power up your laptop and--arrrrgh!--you left your mobile at home. The passenger next to you offers her Motorola, but it doesn't like the Nokia plug, and anyway you'd need to install entirely different software on your laptop... So you give up and look out the window.Getting digital gadgets to talk to each other can drive anyone nuts, but that may be ready to change. A consortium of 2,000 high-tech companies, including Microsoft, IBM, Sony and Intel, is pushing Bluetooth technology, a new global...
  • George Jetson's Car Lot

    These days your typical online car-buying experience might go something like this: you're looking for, say, an Audi A4. You click onto one of the popular Web referral services--like Autobytel or AutoWeb--and configure your new set of wheels. The service locates a dealer who can match your options, but the showroom happens to be 100 miles away. And, you have to put up with blue when you wanted silver. Price? The dealer's got MSRP in mind, rather than invoice.You start sending e-mails or decide to visit the dealer, but either way you're forced to haggle just like the last time you bought a car. And you're left with the nagging feeling that you could have gotten a better deal.For all the New Economy fanfare, the Net hasn't exactly revolutionized the way we buy cars. Yes, some new cars come Web-ready and with all kinds of gizmos, as enthusiasts at the Paris Auto Show saw last month. And the Net surely can let us save time by doing car research online. No longer do we have to call a...
  • Running On Fuel Cells

    Soaring gasoline prices are no big deal. The real push for greener cars is from the lawmakers--especially in California, where the Zero Emissions Mandate requires that by 2003, 10 percent of all cars sold will be pollution-free. To meet that standard the auto industry is betting on a new power source: hydrogen fuel cells. In theory, you can get limitless hydrogen from seawater using solar power. And when you burn it, you get energy and plain water--nothing else. In recent years carmakers and oil companies have spent billions of dollars learning to make the cells cheaper and more efficient.Now the first cell-powered prototype cars are finally appearing. The pacesetter for the Sydney Games marathon was Opel's HydroGen 1 prototype. BMW has built a test fleet of 15 hydrogen-powered 7-Series vehicles. General Motors Chairman Harry Pearce calls the fuel cell Precept, unveiled in January, his "baby." Mercedes-Benz says it will start producing a hydrogen-fueled car in 2004. By January Ford...
  • Taking It To The Streets

    The big economic summit hadn't even started, and already Prague was under something like a state of siege. At border crossings into the Czech Republic, traffic was backed up for miles last week as police and frontier guards tried to weed out troublemakers. In Prague, the authorities advised citizens to stock up on food and then bolt their doors and stay inside. The U.S. State Department warned Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to the Czech capital this week and next. At a still-secret location in the countryside, seasoned activists were preparing a three-day session to train the leaders of some 20,000 demonstrators in protest tactics, media relations and first aid. On the Internet, a Web site called destroyimf.org, run by several left-wing workers' groups, was promising to "turn Prague into Seattle." The organizers vowed to "shut down that summit with the biggest international demo Europe has ever seen."There's a good chance the protests in Prague will not add up to another ...
  • A Cold West Wind

    I'm ashamed of what people from my country have to do to survive," says Svetlana, an unemployed Ukrainian schoolteacher. Svetlana, 27, is downing vodka with her husband at a seedy, $2.50-a-night guesthouse next to the bus station in Przemysl, just over the border in Poland. Like many Ukrainians, Svetlana now ekes out a living in the border bazaars that sprang up across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. Every few weeks, Svetlana crosses into Poland carrying bagloads of goods to sell at a jumble of derelict stalls and tables in what used to be the football stadium in Przemysl. Svetlana refuses to give her last name, not from shame, but because the Poles are cracking down on traders like her.From Poland north to Estonia and south to Romania, former Soviet states and satellite nations are tightening their eastern borders. All aspire to join the European Union, which offers more open trade with rich nations like France and Germany, but demands greater vigilance against...
  • Defiant And Dismissive

    When Helmut Kohl finally testified last Thursday before the Bundestag about his role in Germany's biggest postwar political scandal, his performance was, well, vintage Kohl. The former chancellor was asked all the tough questions: who gave 2 million marks in secret campaign donations to his party, the Christian Democratic Union? Why did lobbyists and businesses deposit millions more in the coffers of the CDU shortly after closing deals with Kohl's government? And why did official records of these deals disappear shortly before Kohl left office in 1998? Rather than clearing up the mystery, the 70-year-old ex-chancellor lashed out at his questioners. "This panel... only has the goal of defaming 16 years of government under Helmut Kohl," he fumed. As to the charges, they were nothing but "absurd."Despite his defiance, Kohl's woes keep growing. Since the Spendenaffre (Donation Affair) first shocked Germany last November, CDU officials have had to admit that Kohl and his associates ran a...
  • This Fair Could Flop

    The mishaps began early. at the grand opening of the Hanover world's fair earlier this month, Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski got stuck in an elevator in the newly unveiled European Union pavilion. Technicians rushed to the scene but couldn't get the brand-new lift to budge. After anxious minutes, the hefty statesman had to climb a ladder and wriggle through a narrow hatch onto the roof. The elevator mishap was just for openers. Last week, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, in town with his wife, Princess Caroline of Monaco, suddenly collapsed at a gala after a long day shaking hands on the fairgrounds. Medics whisked him away; the exact cause and nature of his fainting spell remain unknown. Fortunately, when Ludmila Putin blasted in last week during her husband's state visit to Germany, the Russian First Lady got away unscathed.The fair itself may not be so lucky. Barely three weeks into its four-month run, Expo 2000, as the fair is known, is off to an embarrassing start. The...
  • Hey--Where Can I Get Some Of That?

    In a dimly lit room high above Berlin's busy Kurfurstendamm Boulevard, Dirk Schmidt's gaze is fixed on a PC monitor. Since March the 32-year-old unemployed subway conductor has been a day trader, using the facilities at a brand-new company called D-Trade. Though his modest start-up stake of 25,000 euro (a severance payment) has shrunk by 2,000 euro, he's not worried. "No way am I going back to my old job," he says. "My future is in the stock market."Schmidt may or may not be unrealistic. But in Germany, his faith in the stock market is no longer unusual. Already warming to stocks, average folks—subway conductors, teachers, housewives— have noticed the country's celebrated entrepreneurs and concluded that they, too, can get rich, or at least richer, if they're willing to take a few risks. For most, that doesn't mean starting companies; it means buying shares, often in the companies the entrepreneurs run. Fourteen percent of Germans now own stocks, up from 8 percent in 1997.Plain...
  • The Wiles Of The Old World

    Leave it to the French to tell an American multinational where to go. Last year, having noticed how much money the government was spending on software--mostly from Microsoft--Paris bureaucrats advised state agencies to switch to cheaper products. The Ministry of Culture has since ditched Windows in favor of Linux, and other agencies plan to do likewise.Europe's competition authorities are keeping a careful eye on the U.S. case against Microsoft. Brussels will likely want any remedies imposed in America to be applied in its bailiwick, too. And meanwhile, it's proceeding with its own, separate antitrust probe into Windows 2000. Yet as France's Culture Ministry showed, Bill Gates doesn't enjoy quite the clout in the Old World that he wields in the New. "In the U.S., it tends to be a foregone conclusion that you're wedded to Windows," says Matthew Nordan, senior analyst for Forrester Research in Amsterdam. "In Europe, people are much more likely to search for alternatives."The reason?...
  • Scandal Sinks Schauble

    In the north wing of Berlin's Reichstag, Germany's despairing Christian Democrats huddled in a smoky third-floor conference room. After weeks of scandal, plummeting approval ratings and even a suicide, more than 100 CDU parliamentarians were locked in a bitter argument about the future of their party. Finally a group of renegade deputies from North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, decided the moment was right for a mutiny. In a tense exchange with the party's embattled chairman, Wolfgang Schauble, they demanded early elections for a new leadership. By the end of the day, Schauble had become the latest casualty in the corruption scandal tearing apart the country's conservative opposition. "We cannot go on like this," he conceded to fellow parliamentarians before announcing his resignation at a hastily called news conference. "We need a new beginning."They sure do. Schauble's ouster last Wednesday was the second shock to convulse the Christian Democratic Union in as...
  • Money For Nothing

    It's shaping up as quite a glittering party. Hundreds of high-net-worth types will gather at Bonn's Hotel Maritim this week to slurp champagne, crowd around the buffet table and show their New Economy style. Founders of fast-growing tech companies such as Brokat, MobilCom and WaveLight will tipple and gossip with the venture capitalists who have helped them create billions of euros in shareholder wealth and thousands of badly needed jobs. At the evening's climax, they'll all raise a glass and wish a happy 10th birthday-- to a government bureaucracy.Well, this is Germany. Ten-year-old TBG (the complete mouthful is Technologie-Beteiligungs-Gesellschaft mbH der Deutschen Ausgleichsbank) is a 100 percent state-owned agency that's become Europe's single biggest investor in high-tech start-ups. An outgrowth of the Research and Technology Ministry, TBG has funneled more than 800 million euro into 700 German companies. Fifteen of those have gone public; dozens more IPOs are now in the...
  • The Best Deal Around

    Anke Olafsson knew exactly what kind of car she wanted: a used four-wheel-drive Subaru Outback. Trouble was, that model is not only pricey but pretty hard to find in the Swedish city of Jonkoping, where Olafsson lives. So she got Kurt Gustafsson, her local used-car dealer, to find her one--on the Internet. Gustafsson went straight to a Munich-based Web site called Autoscout.de, a car emporium listing more than 130,000 new and used models in garages and other dealers' lots all over Europe. Navigating through the German site's Swedish-language version, he zeroed in on a private owner in Frankfurt, who happened to have a Subaru handy. This week Gustafsson will travel to Germany to pick up the car for Olafsson.These days, such deals are making Europe's borders fall faster than you can say "single market." Like Autoscout, online retailers are making shopping abroad more accessible by offering multilingual sites. And with many of them already pricing in euros, comparison shopping has...
  • Net Travel Takes Off

    The last thing Britta Behrends wanted to do when planning her vacation was "listen to a bunch of travel agents trying to sell me something, or spend a lot of time asking my friends for recommendations." So the overworked 24-year-old German account manager went online. She quickly surfed her way to Cabana, a German Internet travel site that launched last June. There she found hundreds of travelers like herself who'd gotten together to trade tips on the best beaches, worst hotels and cheapest plane tickets to be had. Within a few minutes, Behrends had zeroed in on her perfect vacation in Egypt. Only then did she call a local agent to book her trip.She could've stayed online to do that, too. Travel, like books, CDs and software, is big business on the Net. Europeans spent v380 million last year just booking plane tickets online. Though that number is still a small fraction of the v155 billion European travel industry, it's growing exponentially. And everyone wants a piece of the new...
  • Aol's European Adventure

    Think global, act local, say the business gurus. But they rarely add what AOL Europe now knows: that second step is the hard one. When rival Freeserve introduced no-fee Net access in Britain last fall, AOL Europe chief Andreas Schmidt calmly observed that "free Internet access doesn't work as a business model." Then Freeserve rocketed past AOL as Britain's premier gateway to the Net--and Schmidt found himself in London last Tuesday, introducing a stripped-down version of AOL called Netscape Online. The business model? Free access to the Internet.AOL is only one of several big-name Net companies to have eagerly surfed across the Atlantic--and then learned a lesson or two in the Old World. Bookseller Amazon had to adjust its billing practices to battle German media giant Bertelsmann on its home turf. Online broker E*Trade had to master a whole new set of financial regulations before it inaugurated its U.K. arm in July. Yahoo! became Europe's leading portal by producing localized...
  • Berlin's Business Plan

    It's Saturday night in Berlin. The narrow streets of the ultrahip Mitte district are packed with partyers flocking from bar to bar, past the trendy galleries, clubwear boutiques and all-night Turkish eateries. In a tenement apartment above a noisy cafe, Stephan Schmitt and a handful of musicians and computer hackers crowd around a keyboard and a couple of PCs, creating a strange cocktail of electronic bleeps, twangs and swooshes.A techno jam session? Not exactly. These young people are making something Berlin needs even more than new dance tracks for its nightclubs: jobs. Schmitt is founder and technical director of Native Instruments, a 14-person software start-up that's developed a software-based sound synthesizer. He and his team are racing to finish the code for their newest release, to go on sale in 20 countries in a month. Music magazines have showered the company's products with awards, and Schmitt says he's been approached by both Microsoft and Apple for possible licensing...
  • Death In The Alps

    The snow began falling three weeks ago in Galtor, Austria, and it didn't stop, even after it had covered the entire town with enough powder to shut down roads and immobilize ski lifts. Monika Spitzbarth and her husband, Roland, had come from Zurich to ski the Austrian Alps, but the storms and heavy snows kept them lodged in their hotel room at the Ballunspitze resort. Last Tuesday, just after 4 in the afternoon, the Spitzbarths were playing yet another game of cards when the sky went black. "There was a terrible roar outside, and everything was suddenly dark," recalls Monika. "It was like being inside a car as it goes through a car wash." Somewhere outside, people were screaming.After several minutes of chaos and darkness, the Spitzbarths looked out their window. A large barn that stood only a few feet away had disappeared, ripped to shreds and buried by a wall of snow that crashed down Galtor's 2,500-meter-high Adamsberg mountain. Cars were flipped over on their tops. Snow and...