Homage to Minitel – RIP Petite Boîte Marron

After 30 years of clunky yet uniquely profitable operation, France Telecom, the former state monopoly, has thrown the switch and darkened Minitel screens across the nation.

1981 Alcatel Minitel terminal (see also http:/...

Still found in some French homes the 1981 Alcatel Minitel terminal (Credit: Wikipedia)

France’s telematics pioneer which preceded America’s now global Internet has conceded defeat for the commercial operation of videotext technology that when it first appeared in 1980 was rightly hailed as a breakthrough for a digital interactive people platform.

Although initially designed to replace the expensive-to-print and distribute French telephone directory it rapidly became a news-media/weather, booking,information  service/chats coquins and online sex kiosk phenomenon. At its peak it was earning and sharing the equivalent  of 1 billion euros a year between its state-owned operator and those who sold services or provided content through it.


Read our earlier piece:  Le Minitel Still France’s Preferred “Internet”


At its most popular in 2002 some 9 million households used it.  Even at the official moment of its death France Telecom admits there were 800,000 terminals in working order across France generating hundreds of thousands of hits a month on the 3611 online phone directory service (Les Pages Zoom sur Minitel ) with an annual turnover of 10 million euros. The 3618 service offering Minitel to Minitel connections has not been turned off and according to the Minitel website: “offers real time Minitel to Minitel text messaging. allowing  anyone with a Minitel to correspond with other owners of a terminal”.

As Martin Untersinger reported on Rue89: “But there are still companies making money with Minitel. These include firms such as AGL publishers of 3615 Ulla whose marketing manager Nadege Onderka told me: ‘Its share of turnover, has declined dramatically since 2007 but Minitel still represented 6% of sales in 2011, and we expect that it will account for 2% in 2012 by the time Minitel is shutdown.’  AGL long ago made the shift to the Internet and launched Ulla.com . But 3615 is not yet dead: ‘Last month (May 2012) Ulla 3615 had 21,000 connections. We think these are users who have grown up with Minitel’. Even Iliad, the parent company of Free, the Internet and mobile phone operator retained its Annu 3617 (phone directory) service when it sold its Minitel business. This remains one of the most profitable services in the group making 3 to 4 million euros profit on sales pa. The end of Minitel is more than the dumping of the famous ‘Petite Boîte Marron or little brown box’, it  also represents the end of a profitable economic era. For Minitel provided useful revenues to large sectors of the economy, including newspapers which in today’s Internet world are losing money. After over-coming initial resistance the media finally saw the advantages of videotext and created their own Minitel services: weather forecasts, sports scores, movie times and the rose messaging  services.”

Here courtesy of Rue89 and Vivelapub are YouTube and Ina clips of highlights of the videotext era including  some of the  associated hoarding and newspaper advertising for Le Minitel rose, the adult content service and forerunner of today’s far more explicit Internet porn sites.

First institutional advertising arrived in 1986

Easy to use but…. well clunky

The Minitel rose services created many millionaires but caused authorities some concern.

Anyone older than 20 will remember the ubiquitous Ulla adverts for Minitel Rose services.

NOËL MAMÈRE discovers Le Minitel rose chat service (Antenne 2, September 1986)

‘TÉLÉMATEZ’ LIBÉRATION, offering sports results (November 1986)

3615 ALINE presented an evening series (February 1991)

MINITEL’s launch as shown on France 3 Rennes, September 1982

Among arguments advanced for saving Videotext in 2009 when France Telecom first announced a cut off date was this one: “Many French people will never access the Internet. To connect to the Internet, one has to buy hardware, software and antivirus software, spend time learning how it all works, put up with unsolicited messages and hundreds of scams, spend hours navigating around unclear website looking for information that is instantly available on Minitel. These are just a few reasons why those not connected to the Internet for financial or other constraints are reluctant to commit to such a time consuming activity. This is particularly the case for many old age pensioners and sole traders, artisans or farmers and frequently so in remote rural areas where electricity and broadband connections are prone to the vagaries of rural electrical distribution and weather. Computers also need power surge regulators in such places.  Other Minitel advantages include:

  • no upfront investment
  • small footprint, with just two connecting cables
  • instant connection to the phone network
  • easy to use
  • perfect safety, no risk of viruses, spam, scams or stealing of personal data
  • information limited to essentials, with no annoying ads
  • French-made and available in French. “

Story: Ken Pottinger

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