In the early 1980s - long before the Internet came to dominate our lives - France proudly became the first country in the world to go “online”.
Three decades later, the Minitel network will finally be switched off, on Saturday June 30, a victim of the now ubiquitous World Wide Web.
The Minitel, an ugly brown box with an inbuilt screen and keyboard, was the world’s first successful – and lucrative – mass-market experiment in connecting homes and businesses to a central database allowing users to receive and share information in “real time”.
Its popularity was given a huge boost thanks to state monopoly France Telecom, which gave the consoles away for free. It then charged customers for usage on a pay-as-you-use basis.
Compared with today’s prices, using a Minitel wasn’t cheap, costing around nine euros per hour to use the popular 3516-prefix messaging service.
Purchases made through the system were charged to the users’ telephone bills, with France Telecom taking a commission on sales.
The network was also the alma mater of Internet pornography, giving users (expensive) access to sex chat services nicknamed “Minitel Rose” (Pink Minitel).
By the late 1990s, and despite the steady growth of the Internet, some nine million terminals were still being used regularly in France to access the network.
But outside France, Minitel remained virtually unknown, and similar experiments in other countries in the 1980s failed to capture the public imagination .
Internet killed the Minitel star
The closed nature of the network, limited almost completely to French domestic services, meant that Minitel would inevitably become a victim to the Web's “open architecture”.
Nevertheless, French technology experts insist that the system was profoundly innovative and influential to the way the Internet was to develop through the 1990s.
“The early development of the Web was not an easy process,” said Valérie Schafer, researcher at the government-sponsored National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), who denied that there was an “Anglo-Saxon” victory of innovation over the French Minitel. “Many of the systems [payment, instant messaging, etc] developed for the Internet had already been established by Minitel and its Transpac network.”
Benjamin Thierry, author of “Minitel, l’Enfance Numérique de la France” [Minitel, France’s Digital Childhood] said France had set the scene for our modern inter-connectivity.
In particular, Thierry pointed out that the Minitel’s business model was being used by companies such as Apple, which effectively acts as a sales agent through its iTunes and App stores in much the same way as France Telecom.
“Many of the revolutions that people try to sell us these days are much less innovative than Minitel was in its heyday,” he told FRANCE 24.
Photo: Joi Ito