Minitel, the Internet before the Internet, is dead

Today the Internet rules the world and the happenings all around the world, with its rise being marked by the mid 1990’s. But, further back, during the 1980’s, France had been laughing at the rest of the world thanks to its ‘state of the art’ Minitels.

To put it in very simple terms, Minitel was the Internet before the Internet.

Back in those days when one wasn’t even able to think of ‘buying online’ or sending e-mails, many households of France had already been enjoying the ‘digital age’ thanks to Minitel. France had been providing ‘Mintel terminals’ at subsidized rates to the households of the country during that time. Minitel helped the French to access and share text contents from the comfort of their home. Minitels were (are) text-only terminals (think computers but text-only computers); and in their early days, only newspaper companies were allowed to supply content to Minitels.

Soon after it was released, newspaper companies started providing paid services like shopping, fund transfers, ticketing, and –ahem- text messages.

At its apogee in 1998, the system generated over a billion dollars a year in revenue, and accounted for nearly 15% of the annual income for online retailers 3 Suisses and La Redoute, to name a couple.

As days and years went by, technology ‘outside’ Minitels developed, and Minitels had its developmental phase constrained to roughly about 5 years according to analysts. Soon, Internet sprouted in and quickly started taking control of the digital world. (Interestingly enough, in February 2009 France Telecom indicated the Minitel network still had 10 million monthly connections. Imagine that.) Actually, many of the ideas behind the Internet were planted or inspired by the Minitels and they have also had a great role in developing other sections of the digital world. And now, after about 30 years, the French government has decided to pull the plug on Minitel for the last time.

With the doomsday of a legacy here, let us pay our gratitude and tribute to whatever Minitel has brought to the world today. Post in the comments below!

[via Engadget]

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  • Minitel delivered something we still don’t have in the US today, which is data access with a free terminal in every home with a phone. Compuserve, in comparable years, was $60-80 per month, plus phone charges, plus your own equipment (a very expensive computer and modem). It’s simply not the same.

  • Madhamish

    @leland: My comment was along the lines that UK and USA telcos didn’t provide a compatible never mind comparable service.

    Minitel was primary a text based information and messaging service and not an interactive service with the graphics of today. Think of a two way Teletext service. Hence it’s limited life span. If 30 years can be considered limited in communication terms.

    Back in the 70s I used inter-university networking that was modem and KSR33 based which was similar in some ways to the Minitel service but limited to academia. Likewise in industry various factories and R & D units in companies had inter-site dial-up networks to supplement the “dumb” terminal intra-site network. The start of APRAnet to some and a direct predecessor to the net we know and love.

    Come the 80s bulletin boards were available and BBC computers made use of them with an external 1200/75 baud modem for distributing software amongst other things. They even had the capability to download software through TV programmes with a flashing cursor in the bottom on the screen that had to be optically linked to the serial interface.

    The above examples are not what Minitel was about, as they were more of interest to early home-brew computer users who did have a smattering of programming ability. Minitel was about out of the box functionality with little set-up time and a simple user interface, namely a menu. The closest the UK came was a short lived home e-mail terminal and telephone from AMSTRAD, didn’t catch on because it was too late to market, most people that required that service already had computers in the home with far greater functionality.

  • What about Compuserve and GenieNet just to name a couple. I can remember using these with 300 baud modems back in the 80’s. Not to mention some local BBS systems and Fidonet that was offered through these. You could have discussions as well as download software through these services before the internet. Yes the internet existed even then at universities and you could get access if you knew the right people and with that access to Usenet, ftp and gopher well before the world wide web. It was very much the infancy of the internet as we know it. It was a great time to learn about computers. It was also a time when a large majority of the people had at least a little programming knowledge unlike today.

  • James Kelly

    I remember being in France during the early 1970s and thinking hey had the worst telephone system in the world.

    When I lived in Paris during the late 1980s I could hardly believe the difference and the Minitel terminals were brilliant for their time. Also the phones worked!

    I couldn’t understand why other technically advanced countries like the UK and USA didn’t have this capability. The UK still had one principal home telecom provider (BT) so there was no excuse for not being able to offer a similar system. The closest we came to it, in Britain, was dial-up bulletin boards run by interested third parties. The number of providers (both local and national) in America might have made this more difficult.

    Then I realised, if you tell a French person “C’est pour La Belle France”, they’ll embrace the idea. In the UK it’s “How much is this going to cost me”? In the USA it seems to be if “If I get the wrong train/bus/flight/cinema time, can I sue, even if it’s my fault”?

    The only trouble with Minitel was it couldn’t interface to Usenet Newsgroups and was bounded to France as no other telco had a compatible system. It’s a case of adapt or die. Sorry with its built-in limitations the only course is the latter.

    Minitel you proved your worth but your end has come.