Le Minitel Still France’s Preferred “Internet”
Remember videotext? Well probably not if you’re a World Wide Web addict. For the telematics miracle of the 80s has all but been eclipsed by a Web that rides Worldwide on its Internet.
However today, 33 years after the first French trials of videotex begin in Velizy, Versailles and Val de Bievre (and shortly after Bill Gates began scrabbling around with the crude code that morphed into Microsoft), there are still 2 million users of le Minitel (the device that delivers videotext) in France and the service continues to generate “millions of euros ” for its telecommunications operator-owner France Telecom.
Use of le Minitel peaked in 1997 with some 7 million terminals installed, a hookup that at that time offered access for one in every five French households to more than 26,000 on-line services ranging from the digital telephone directory (the 3611 electronic White Pages), to computer dating, home banking, shopping, government services and library catalogues.
Indeed the overhang of le Minitel and its dogged popularity — because “it is secure, virus-free, fast…and French” — likely determines the ambivalence still shown today towards any full frontal French embrace of the Internet. After all France invented videotext didn’t it? Well not quite although le Minitel has proved wildly more popular in France than in most other European countries where it was introduced, due, in no small measure, to le Minitel rose (see below). In fact according to David E. Carlson “father of the modern interactive newspaper” the world’s first videotex system “Viewdata,” was introduced in 1974 by British GPO or General Post Office telecommunications engineers and later became known as Prestel.
Read more: Homage to Minitel – RIP Petite Boîte Marron
France Telecom, the private operator that now runs the legacy network, has announced it is to phase out le Minitel in September 2011. This follows an earlier reprieve for the 3611 directory service in 2009. So if you’re a fan of retro better get plugged into le Minitel now. If enough fans do it may win yet another reprieve. While the equipment is obsolete and largely overtaken technologically — the terminals are no longer manufactured but and similar to La Citroën 2CV (deux-chevaux), old recycled ones are still available — its popularity has been enhanced by one million users who still today access it via i-Minitel, a simulator application for use on computers and downloadable free here. The kiosque service is available here. France Telecom says that in 2009, the Annu 36 17 (a charged for reverse lookup directory search) even earned the company running it nearly one million euros in shared revenue.
Jack Kessler writing in D-Lib Magazine, in December 1995 raised issues still pertinent today regarding French attitudes towards the Anglo-Saxon model of doing anything: “The French and their Minitel present several challenges to the Internet mind. The Minitel, like France and the French generally, is older, more centralized, more bureaucratic, and both less and more successful than the US and its Internet. In France the Internet, enjoying its fantastic growth there as elsewhere, is known as an “Anglo-Saxon” phenomenon … a double threat, or the Internet as American / English creation, anyway. This is the key to understanding the French and their Minitel, particularly… and a look at their very different Minitel just might provide a number of clues as to how these new “outsider” customers will think (about a non-French substitute for the Minitel).” To some extent one sees this in the over-use of Flash-driven style and presentation by so many French websites to the detriment of what others consider critical user-friendliness and practicality.
Today, some 2400 of le Minitel’s initial services remain available to users who pay small, time-based amounts per connection through their telephone or Internet bills. This aspect – a micropayments system for content providers, as they are now known, who share revenue with the telecoms company every time a user accesses their paid-for content — was highly successful in le Minitel’s heyday but has flopped badly with almost every attempt to introduce it on the Internet.
The good news for newspapers in videotex days was that they could and did make money — in France anyway — by partnering to sell news and views through the then monopoly telecoms operator (the posts and telegraphs arm of DGT-Direction générale des telecommunications). Ironically today on the laissez-faire Internet that model, with rare exceptions, has been totally undermined.
The reader, used to the largely free, Google-intermediated information overload that is today’s Internet, may be tempted to ask why the media should want or indeed wish to charge for access to its digital data? The question has become critical since ad revenues on and offline dropped over a cliff in the current global recession. As advertising no longer generates sufficient profits the media must hanker over the well-run videotex days where financial models worked. And certainly, if an unfettered, uncensored and non-state-controlled press is to survive and pursue the vital role of holding governments and global corporations to account in democracy, it needs revenues. Bizarrely it earned considerable sums with (a centralised, state-run videotext infrastructure) le Minitel, and lost them with the (decentralised , unfettered, capitalist-run) Internet!
- le Minitel Rose
In the 90s, le Minitel’s free and paid-for services to users included the highly successful le Minitel Rose , a big, if unintended, revenue earner, and percursor to today’s web-based, dating, personal contact, porn and similar sites.
Many Parisians may still remember the flowering of ads in the mid-1980s for telephone sex popularised in the summer of 1986 by a large poster showing just … a freshly opened mussel!
Even though ostensibly Le Minitel was designed to supplant the expensive-to-print-and deliver French telephone directory, dumping it online and charging users for access beyond a certain amount, it was the privately-run Kiosques that soon became a massive hit, generating millions of francs, as they were then, for entrepreneurs and the state telecoms authority — le DGT. The state made good use of these plus the savings from non-printed phone directories, to upgrade and improve the national telecommunications networks.
le Minitel Rose was however an unintended consequence of the move to replace printed words by bits and bytes. For rather like text messaging in today’s mobile phone environment, the technical model designed by its originators, had absolutely not anticipated videotex messaging. Rather the focus at the time was to build large databases such as the electronic directory, and any idea that the state would encourage the emergence of personal discussion groups was incongruous.
According to one engineer involved with developing le Minitel: “As we tested the service in real time we realised that new users often had difficulty understanding how the system worked. So we decided to add a function allowing us to send them a message directly to the terminal screen and receive their responses, to help them better learn to use the system. One day a user hacked this functionality and began to use it to chat with other users. When we realised what had happened we decided to improve this function and include it in the (revenue earning) services offered to the public.”
Story: Ken Pottinger