France turned off its Minitel service on June 30, thirty years after the little beige boxes first appeared in French homes. Apparently almost 800,000 devices were still in use when the time came to flip the switch from the maximum of 9 million devices that were in use in the mid-1990s, figures that are a tribute to the foresight of those who deployed and maintained the system since its introduction.
Looking at the Minitel devices now through the lens of modern computing design, you might wonder at the clunkiness of it all. But if you cast your mind back to the connectivity that people generally enjoyed in 1982, Minitel all seems so avant-garde, far removed from dial-up network connections over a 300 baud modem to bulletin boards accessed from the earliest PCs or other devices.
Integration was the big advantage enjoyed by Minitel, a factor exploited with success by Apple today. France Telecom designed and deployed the Minitel devices, connecting them into its own network and providing the essential infrastructure for third-party information providers to link their services and make them available to Minitel consumers. Sounds a lot like iPhone and the App Store today!
Sets were free because they replaced the traditional printed (heavyweight) telephone directory. The services were many and varied and very much a precursor of how the Internet developed. First up were public services and an online telephone directory. The ease by which you could search for a local doctor or dentist was amazing, even for technophobes. Next came services such as online horoscopes, airline booking, train arrivals and departures, and so on, all paid for via your telephone bill. France Telecom made it extremely easy to consume a lot of services without really noticing, another issue that the App Store has been criticized for in modern times.
But the thing that made Minitel was “Minitel Rosé”, literally “Pink Minitel”. Just like pornography accelerated the pace of development for inventions such as the VCR, DVD, and the web, sex services accessed via the black and white screen and chunky keyboard became very popular and accelerated the usage of Minitel across France. I remember visiting a French neighbor for dinner in 1988. After the meal, the men were brought into the host’s office to view his hobby of connecting to a popular pick-up forum. I had no idea that our host liked masquerading as a blond 16-year old female from Toulouse and spent hours chatting to others who lurked around the forum. To each his own, I guess.
France has been successful with many great natural projects such as the TGV. Minitel was successful within France but never made a transition to other countries. Despite its lead in terms of vision and implementation together with a successful nationwide deployment and evidence of a solid business model, Minitel just didn’t make it elsewhere. France tried, but no other national PTT (for such was the target market in the 1980s and 1990s) was tempted to use Minitel and eventually its technical lead and access to information was succumbed by the advent of the world wide web and browsers that could run on just about any computing device.
So adieu Minitel, another great idea that had its time but never quite made it outside its home market.
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