Sunday, July 1, 2012

A French Story.

Abundance of major news this week: 
- the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the so-called Obama-care (the Affordable Care Act),  (and the initial misreporting of CNN and Foxnews whose journalists forgot to read through the entire ruling)
- the unexpected bold move of Europe's leaders at the European summit to which stocks rallied in sheer (but overrated?) optimism. 
- or even, rumors that DSK's wife, Anne Sainclair might have finally kicked him out

These have made the headlines and have been largely covered, analysed and commented upon. What else is there to say worth of this blog? 
So I'd like to choose to talk about a much-less significant but culturally interesting piece of news: the disappearance of a French dinosaur - a device made in France, by the French, for the French: the MINITEL. 

Most of you outside France may have no idea what the Minitel is because it fails to sell outside France, mostly because of the success of the Internet. 
And indeed, the Minitel was probably the world's most successful pre-World Wide Web online services in the 1980s. As vintage as it looks now, it was the most advanced information service in the world when it was launched in 1978 in Brittany, over 10 years before the Web was invented in Europe. 

While the rest of the world was still lining up at the bank, or at the train station, the French could already get information or buy train tickets "online" (BBC). When I graduated from high school, I had to apply to college on the Minitel. 

The Minitel terminals (which look terribly old fashioned today) were freely distributed by the then state-owned France Telecom so it spread quickly even to the the poorest households. It would usually sit next to your telephone to which it was connected. Then you dialed a specific site (which often started by 3615), which could offer a free service (like electronic yellow pages) or a commercial pay-per-minute service (among which the most successful ones were the semi-porn services called "Minitel rose". Some things don't change!).  

It has been suggested that because of the Minitel, the French initially lacked behind in the number of people connected to the Internet. This is indeed my experience. 

Back in 1993, when I had my first connexion to the Internet in France via a company called Compuserve, I was met with doubt and suspicion from my friends and family. After all, France did not need an American version of the Minitel and I was known for being too much into American stuff, which in itself made me biased. But even then, although there was very little available on the Web, and I was using it mostly for email, I thought the Internet was a thing of the future. Imagine, you had to pay per minute to chat on the Minitel which guaranteed millions to the unique provider France Telecom. Those huge profits and the highly centralized system gave France Telecom no inventive to evolve technologically. (arstechnica)

This is what FB would look like on the Minitel: 

This is such a typically French story: good innovative invention but no flexibility and bad commercial policy. It could have been made more graphical and the Minitel terminals could have been used to connect every household to the Internet with a sort of French cloud system. After all, the power of the device was that it was available in every home and business (PC Mag) and very simple to use, especially for the elderly (NYTimes). But instead of adapting the system to the needs of a changing world, France Telecom tried to sell a whole system lock (, i.e. "all inclusive" (NYTimes) and naturally it failed. When the semi-porn services left the Minitel to the Internet was its death warrant. 

The Minitel is still used by a few elderly people, notably in rural areas (NYTimes), but its costs is not worth its gains any more. What a fitting symbol! 

Minitel, R.I.P (1978-2012). 

1 comment:

HeadUpNoRegrets said...

Hello there, is this exact blog is your sole domain or you personally have some others?