The Minitel celebrates its 21st birthday.

There I tap 3611, then I press on “connection”, something very simple, quick, effective, I am going to find, for my work, say the telephone number of a bank for example, so I take it, I press on “send” and truly a second later I have the number of the phone displayed and by comparison to the telephone that I have, I can even do “end connection” then we call the number which has been recorded which is displayed on the screen of the Minitel. So then I do that for example and I have my number dialed.

A telephone which knows how to call someone even if you do not know his number? That must be the latest thing in high technology, right? No, it is the humble French Minitel which has just celebrated its 21st birthday.

The story of the Minitel is an adventure which is as rich in economic lessons as in technical ones, starting with a great gesture of willingness on the part of France Telecom in 1982.

It was a great success because it was a… the Minitel was the instrument, right, which was intended to connect and access a network which was called Teletel, and then this Minitel was distributed to all the users of French telephones who asked for it, that is to say that several million devices were distributed, free of charge at first, that was what made sure that it was well received in French homes.

What a bold move! It is hard to imagine a private company daring to do a free distribution on such a scale. But the bet was won because attached to its new technology, the French public enthusiastically adopted the paid-for services which followed. Historian of telecommunication Christian Altier:

It was effectively a tool, a product which was profitable because there was an enormous investment at the outset. They distributed it in the early days, the Minitel free to users so that they could access the electronic telephone directory and from this use there came other uses which were commercial uses and the big idea of these commercial uses was that the telephone service provider was giving the impression of providing the services of the bank, being a sort of broker between on one side the telephone users and the service providers on the other side.

A service with a business of 750 million euros at the height of its popularity in 1997. But sadly for Minitel, it was a success that they did not manage to export.

So there were in fact many experiments including in the USA, in Germany, in England, very limited, in limited areas, of providing Minitel. But it is true that these experiments were not very conclusive. So the explanation is difficult, personally I have one, but it is not only my idea, and I can share it of course. I think that there was some protectionism, that there was some protectionism at that time which meant that Minitel was not distributed as is should have been.

In spite of the arrival of the Internet, there are still 5 million Minitel devices in service today, addicts like Annick Pelletier are responsible for this:

I don’t know, for me the Internet is complicated. When you want something it gets you tons of other things, which makes you get lost around really what you want and that does not suit me at all. There are things which the Internet suggests that do not interest me, I did not ask for that, but in the end that’s ok. The Minitel is something straight forward, I have the feeling that that I am the master of the tool since I ask for one thing and it gives me just what I asked for and not ten thousand things besides and then personally, I get lost in all that all right.

It has in effect a usage which is still very wide spread, still in France, in the French hexagon [1]. It continues to exist, it continues to be used not only for the electronic phone directory but also for services, public services, banking services and notably thanks to the addition several years ago of a very useful little accessory that they called at the time the ECAM, which is in fact a magnetic memory card reader or the electronic memory card rather, and thanks to this card reader you can carry out financial operations and that provides really interesting services.

Nevertheless, the decline in the usage of Minitel devices is undeniable, 20 per cent down on last year. There will be a future no doubt for the dedicated faithful like Annick or as a paid service on the Internet. But the golden age as an object of the trendy is over.

Can we see in this story, the true origins of the Internet? Christian Altier remains modest:

Who invented the Internet? That is quite a difficult question! I think that it was the American defense who asked the American universities, several decades ago now to put in place a system which would allow them, which would be indestructible even in the event of alterations to the network and which would allow the American army to communicate whatever the circumstances, and these American universities worked in collaboration with European universities and took advantage of this network to communicate between them and so the Internet was born and developed.

But if the Internet of today is in part defined by being part of the every day life of ordinary people, it is clear that Minitel really has its place in history too.

We can effectively consider that Minitel was a precursor of the Internet, it was an Internet for French usage in France of course or practically, but it was really a precursor of Internet used of course speeds of transmission very much less, which had much smaller capacity, but which was absolutely in the philosophy of Internet.

I think that the French played a very big role, notably what was called at the time CNET, the Centre National des Etudes des Telecommunications in the development of tools of communication in general and notably their evolution by using computers. And during the 80s notably, earlier too of course, but during the 80s CNET, France Telecom, was effectively at the forefront of technological developments. And this situation continues but in a more economical way of course, since now the networks are open to competition and it is really France Telecom Research and Development which continues this task taken on by CNET many years ago.

[1] Hexagon – the French often refer to France as the hexagon as the outline of the country resembles a regular hexagon.

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