9 August 2012 by Pelle Neroth
But how ahead of time they were. Launched in 1982, the Minitel eventually allowed users to read the newspapers, buy shares, do your banking, book a rail ticket, check live tennis scores, rent an apartment and above all chat and flirt on the unprepossessing little terminals with primitive graphics and a 1200 baud throughput rate. The Minitel was simplicity itself. You just plugged it into the phone socket with one cable and that was it.
The Minitel was part of the French telecommunications revolution of the 1970s. France had until then one of the worst telephone services in western Europe, with just four million subscribers. Those above a certain age might remember camping or holidaying in France where the difficulty of making long distance calls home was, well, part of the charm.
The grumpy bar or cafe owner presiding over the village's only phone was part of tourist folklore. But president Giscard D'Estaing launched a campaign to get France connected and put all the organisation and capability of which the French civil service is capable behind it.
Digitised phone exchanges were rolled out at high speed and waiting time for a new phone was cut from two years to a matter of weeks. Phone boxes were constructed everwhere Overnight, it seemed, Paris was overrun with phoneboxes that took the innovative chip cards.
The Minitel boxes, valued at about £150, were given free to every household and the initial selling point was that these were electronic telephone directory covering the whole of France at a tine directories became rapidly out of date with a drastic expansion of the number of French phone subscribers. And directory searches indeed remained a core function for the Minitels for most of their existence.
Apart from the electronic phone number directory, the main early driver for Minitel users was text sex chat. There were many services, but the advertising was inevitably similar. Posters with the access code 3615 followed by some woman's name and glamorous picture were everywhere in France for a long time. Billing was based on time connected. Many households with a male component suddenly began getting skyhigh bills.
By 1990, other services like news and online banking - primitive but functional - became relatively more important and by the mid 1990s, the cusp of the internet era, a third of the French population was regularly using Minitel. The internet meant Minitel was ultimately doomed, even though actual service use did not peak until a few years into the internet era, 2002. Conversely French internet uptake was slower than other countries because the French found their needs satisfied by Minitel. Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple, was one of several US computer figures who studied the services pioneered on Minitel carefully.
France was unable to export the Minitel itself to any great extent, except to its cultural satellite Belgium. Historians of the subject say the French were too pushy when trialling their system abroad.
They wanted to export their whole package, without compromises, and were insufficiently flexible to local conditions. One common notion, though, that France Telecom only offered a walled garden environment to developers, was unfair. Setting oneself up as a service provider (news, gambling, chat), and getting a listing in the printed Minitel guide was incredibly easy. At its height Minitel offered 23,000 services.
There seems to have been surprisingly little reproach and resentment at the passing of this French icon in the French press. Most - but not all - Minitel users have happily migrated over to the internet, The technology is nearly 35 years old, so it has had a good run. The simple. monochrome Minitel had, of course, none of, say, the Ipad's, bells and whistles, but surely developers even today have something to learn from the Minitel's usability, adopted by French farmers and pensioners alike with equal enthusiasm.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 09 August 2012 11:38 AM General
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