The awkward word - which means "to search" in Latin - is unlikely to flash across the continent's computer screens anytime soon.

So far Quaero is just a scattering of top tech minds in labs across France and Germany, working on what they hope will be the world's most advanced multimedia search engine.

Quaero epitomises European ambitions - especially for French President Jacques Chirac - of creating alternatives to US technological prowess.

But facing off against super-rich, super-talented US companies may prove daunting for the cumbersome consortium of European companies and public agencies hatching Quaero.

Tough challenge

"We must meet the global challenge of the American giants Google and Yahoo," Chirac said in an address last week laying out his policy priorities for 2006.

"Today the new geography of knowledge and cultures is being drawn. Tomorrow, that which is not available online runs the risk of being invisible to the world," he said.

"Today the new geography of knowledge and cultures is being drawn. Tomorrow, that which is not available online runs the risk of being invisible to the word."

Jacque Chirac,
French president

Designers insist that Quaero will not just be a search engine but a set of tools for translating, identifying and indexing images, sound and text.

The technology would work with all platforms - desktops, mobile devices and even televisions - and be sold to television companies, filmmakers, post-production facilities and anyone who creates or uses audiovisual content, according to France's electronics giant Thomson.

"Yes, it's highly ambitious," said Jean-Luc Moullet, who oversees the Quaero project at Thomson. "There's nothing to compare it to."

But details are scant. None of the key players - including Thomson, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom - would comment on cost.

Rivalling Google

Quaero is hardly the first attempt to develop a compelling alternative to Google, which has emerged as one of the world's best known - and most valuable - companies just seven years after its inception in a Silicon Valley garage.

Even US technology powerhouses like Yahoo Inc and Microsoft Corp haven't been able to erode Google's dominance, even after spending tens of millions of dollars to improve their search engines.

Through November, Google held a 40% share of the US search market, up from 35% in the previous year, according to comScore Media Metrix. Google's lead outside the United States is believed to be even larger.

Quaero is the latest in a string of largely French-led efforts to compete with America's dominance of the global marketplace, a theme of Chirac's foreign policy.

French broadcasters are planning an international television network aimed at presenting a more French view of world events than CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp.

The network, CFII, will broadcast in French and English to Europe, the Middle East and Africa beginning sometime in the next year.

Europe launched a satellite last month aimed at rivalling the US Global Positioning System.

France has also launched an effort to put libraries online, a response to an ambitious book-scanning project at Google. Techies are cautious about Quaero's prospects.

"Europe has a lot of catching up to do," said Jerome Bouteiller, editor of the French online magazine Neteconomie.