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The little computer that could

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Sep 6, 2011 | The little computer that could


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A history of the Minitel

Few outside of France have heard of Minitel, a remarkable precursor to the Internet that managed to holds its own well into the digital age. So well, in fact, that the prehistoric text-based terminal remains profitable with about 30 million euros in revenue in 2010 and about 1 million users. So well, that analysts back in 2001 predicted it could live on for 2 to 5 years, and it has fared well 10 years on. So well, that France Telecom has only finally decided to pull the plug for it next year. For a service that spanned 30 years, it certainly merits its own corner in computer history.

They were first provided free of charge to the French back in 1982 by the goverment-owned French telephone service PTT (now France Telecom) after a successful prototype run of 2500 households in the Paris suburb of Velizy. It was built by Alcatel at a cost of about $200 each, though a variety of competitors did emerge, including companies like Marta, Thomson and TRT. The rationale for giving it away was that it would be cheaper to do so rather than to provide paper telephone-books.

The use of a Minitel would be free for basic queries that a traditional paper-based phonebook would provide, but users would be charged for other tasks, usually via their phone bills. Initially, users would first type a number into the machine depending on who would pay for the service:

3611, for the phone directory, with the first 3 minutes free,
3613, for completely subsidised connections,
3614, for connections paid by the user at about 3 euros an hour

In 1985 a third tier was added, where France Telecom would give 40 francs/hour (about 6 euros) to the service provider and keep 20 francs. This became 3615, the provider of Kiosks: at its peak there were some 26,000 kiosks or services ranging from banking to periodicals to airline ticketing to pornography - 3617 ULLA was a famous example of the “Minitel Rose” where you could write to the porn actress, post discussions or even “looking for” ads (see it in use here). Apparently there was also a service called “Professor Susan” with instructional material for medical students, including some artificial intelligence capabilities. In the first six months of 1986, Minitel had generated revenues of nearly $54 million - at its peak in 2000, there were 16 million regular users (twice the number of Internet users) and 1 in 5 French households had a Minitel unit.

The Minitel was undeniably the most successful deployment of the videotex system, technology that initially meant the use of interactive content displayed on television screens. It used a V.23 modem, essentially one satisfying the 23rd version of the ITU-T standards, with an assymetric data transfer rate of 1200 bits per second to the terminal, and 75 from it. Later models would improve upon this about 8-fold. This technology, however, hampered adoption in the United States because at the time US systems had adopted a different standard known as the Hayes command set.

Despite this, with its popularity in adoption across France, the discussion in the United States even as late as 1995 centered around whether or not Minitel would bury the Internet or if there would be some sort of convergence between the two. Many of the discussions regarding its success point to the following key points:

a) a state-of-the-art telephone and data transmission system
b) a relatively easy to use interface
c) a cheap terminal
d) a transparent billing system that ensured anonymity
e) the support of the government and the lack of need for immediate returns on investment
f) the creation of kiosks to encourage service providers

Some interesting anecdotes have surfaced regarding the Minitel:

a) The earlier models did not let users save the screen they were visiting if they disconnected from the phone line, as the system would revert to the welcome screen if they did. While users could keep the screen (and continue paying for its use) or buy a memory box, they ended up resorting to a hack that involved unplugging the phone line (without pressing the “End Connection” key) or pressing that same button rapidly, twice.

b) The first units would prevent incoming phone calls as long as the user was connected to Minitel.

c) In 1987, CTL director Jean-Louis Fourtanier, director of the French software company CTL, brough several Minitels into the US and Canada in order to set up the first transatlantic Minitel connections.

The national TV channel TF1 covered the Minitel last year in an attempt to understand the kinds of people who still used it.

All in all, the Minitel certainly deserves the distinction of being one of the most widely adopted relics of the technology-yesteryear, and I suspect there will unlikely be anything similar in the years to come. For the French, bidding adieu to the Minitel will be saying goodbye to a trusty old companion with many things that went well for it- very much the little computer that could.

Sources

LePoint.fr, “Le minitel, condamné à mort” (link)
“Minitel alphanumeric matrix keyboards resources page” (link)
“La Nostalgie: Le Minitel” (link)
“Minitel: Wikipedia Francais” (link)
“Beyond Minitel: France on the Internet”. January 8, 1996. link)
“The Teletel/Minitel System in France” (link/PDF “Minitel: The Old New Thing” Wired, April 18, 2001. (link)
http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/the-web/20/379/2119

William L. Cats-Baril and Tawfik Jelassi. “The French Videotex System Minitel: A Successful Implementation of a National Information Technology Infrastructure” MIS Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 1-20 (link)

Odile Challe, “Le Minitel: la télématique à la française”, The French Review, Vol. 62, No. 5 (Apr., 1989), pp. 843-856 Published by: American Association of Teachers of French (link)

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