France says farewell to Minitel, precursor of the internet
France’s Minitel was a precursor to the internet, decades ahead of its time. At its peak in the mid-1990s, some 20 million people logged on every day. But on Saturday 30 June it's being shut down for good.
Minitel was little-known outside the country but, after its introduction in 1982, every French telephone subscriber had one.
A small screen with a keyboard, the Minitel was a very basic computer that allowed users to access text-based data over phone lines.
Karin Lefevre works for France Telecom/Orange, the successor of the publicly owned French telecommunications administration that developed the Minitel.
It was just this small little terminal but as you go behind it, you see what was happening all across the country in terms of industrial policy, in terms of political decisions and enthusiasm for technology. I am to some degree nostalgic because I think that would be a great feeling to get back.
She remembers using it in the 1990s.
“To sign up for university, to check exam results, we can remember the family around the Minitel checking if the cousin has succeeded in the baccalauréat,” she recalls laughing.
Marie Carpenter, who came to France in the 1990s, was amazed by such sophisticated technology.
“When I came it was the early 90s I was astounded that you could book your train tickets on the Minitel and plane tickets, where I come from in Ireland, nothing like that existed,” she says. “So it was certainly a surprise that this small little box could do so much.”
Carpenter teaches at France's telecoms management school and wrote a book about the period during the late 1970s when the Minitel was being developed.
France made a great leap forward exactly because it had lagged behind in telecommunications, she says.
“It was necessary to invest hugely to modernise the system. So, because France did it later than other countries, it had the most modern digital telecommunications network. The next challenge was to decide what to put on this digital network and everybody was trying to find what these new services would be … and how to get them into people's homes. And ironically it was only in France that it actually worked, with this system built around a very simple terminal called the Minitel.”
Besides the technical innovation that allowed for transferring data over a phone line, Carpenter says two key things made the Minitel so successful in France.
First, the terminals themselves were given out free.
“Computers at that stage were the old6fashioned big systems with the cards; So it was very revolutionary to imagine putting a terminal, even a simple one, into everybody's home,” she points out.
Another innovation was the development of the kiosk business model - a billing system that made it simple for users to pay for services through their phone bill.
That model still exists today.
Despite the success of the Minitel, though, within 10 years, the inernet started taking over.
Usage declined during the 1990s but Karin Levefre says the Minitel’s functions prepared French people to go online:
“They were the first online services and I think they helped the French industry of digital content and services to move towards the internet,” she says.
For 90-year-old Louis Gauthier, who worked for French telecommunications consumer defence group Afutt, the Minitel was a convenient way to get information, in particular from his bank.
“It was very secure because you could only connect through your phone line,” he says. “It was a direct connection.”
Gautier stopped using the actual Minitel around 2008 and switched to the online version, called iMinitel. Today he just uses the internet.
But there were still some users in 2012. About 400,000 people logged into the Minitel in the year before its final demise.
“It's a symbol of a generation in a way and a symbol of the way that many people made their first steps online,” says Lefevre
Some people will hold onto the terminals as mementos, she predicts.
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