Adieu, Minitel.

It was a great idea whose time came and went.

photo: Trieum

In the 1970s the French rolled out some impressive technology: the Concorde supersonic transport, Aerospatiale’s brilliant helicopters, the TGV high speed train, the world’s best high voltage switchgear, world champion rally cars, and the Minitel. The Minitel system used dial-up modems on the existing switched telephone lines and appeared in homes and offices as a text-based terminal. It allowed any French telephone subscriber to access telephone directories, read news stories, order event tickets, etc. The French PTT supplied the terminals free of charge — their revenue came from connection time charges. Minitel used the V.23 protocol, with download speed of 1200 bit/s and upload speed of 75 bit/s.

In the 1980s a healthy industry blossomed around the Minitel: French businesses used the Minitel to advertise and provide services. Banks provided online banking. Minitel was the France-wide web before the world-wide web existed.

I first saw a Minitel terminal in use during a trip to Normandy c. 1990. I was impressed, even though it lived in its own little universe and seemed to have no gateways to this thing called the Internet. At that time using the Internet wasn’t easy; I used it for transport of email and occasional file exchange, but user interfaces were minimal text-based commands. In contrast, the Minitel was very easy to use. Who cared if it had no connection to the Internet?

The invention of the World Wide Web and the Mosaic web browser circa 1993 changed that. Apparently the French PTT didn’t respond to the growth of the Web, and the Minitel remained unchanged until they finally pulled its plug in June.

The French government pioneered online commerce in the 1970s. They simply didn’t update their creation. C’est la vie.

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