- The Minitel system allowed French citizens to access all kinds of popular online services in the 1980s — long before the internet was in general use
- At its zenith in the 1990s, it offered more than 25,000 different services, including the ability to purchase products, search the phone directory and enter chat rooms of all kinds
- It was a French government project, maintained and operated by the French telecom and postal monopoly corporation Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones (PTT)
- Free Minitel terminals were handed out by the French government to households all over France until about 9 million of them were in use by 1999
- The system was only finally shut down in 2012
Minitel’s Fascinating and Controversial History
To nearly everyone, the idea of computers communicating with one another and enabling users to quickly and seamlessly share information is synonymous with the Internet. And though, in the minds of a few tech aficionados, early precursors like ARPANET and visionaries like Vannevar Bush and Douglas Engelbart might get a passing nod for for their important contributions to what the internet would eventually become, by common agreement, the World Wide Web is said to be the brainchild of CERN computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. In 1989, the standard story goes, Berners-Lee had the brilliant idea of combining hypertext with the TCP/IP and DNS protocols — and the rest, as they say, was history.
But what if this history leaves out something crucial? What if the true history of the internet, when fully told, includes a French connection?
- Developed starting in 1978; originally tested on July 15, 1980; released to the public in 1982
- A group of engineers at Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones (PTT) led by Bernard Marti
- Original Use
- To modernize the French telecommunications system by introducing digital computers to the network. Originally used as a streamlined phone directory, but developed many other services
- About 8 billion francs over the first 8 years
The truth, though not widely known because of the internet’s current anglophone dominance, is that in the 1980s, nearly a decade before the internet as we know it was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, France had its own version of the net. It was known, to give it its full title, as the Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique, or the Minitel for short. Minitel’s story is a fascinating but nearly forgotten chapter in the history of interactive computing that carries important lessons for our own day — lessons that touch upon everything from the power and importance of creativity to the dangers of government bureaucracy.
France’s Rush to Modernize its Telecommunications
Our detour into this alternative history of the internet — and, as some still insist, the story of what the internet could have been on a global scale — begins in the late 1970s. At that time, France was unfortunately considered to have the worst telephone network in the industrialized world, something which was then a major source of embarrassment to the country’s leadership. In 1978, then French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing read a report written by French researchers Simon Nora and Alain Minc called The Computerization of Society and decided to act upon its recommendations.
The report bemoaned the low penetration of France’s telephone network — a mere 60% in the 1960s when the technologically primitive East Germany could boast 78% penetration — and expressed fear that the country would fall behind others technologically. In particular, it discussed the growing importance of digital computers and pointed out that virtually every telephone, computer, and piece of computer software used in French offices at the time had been created in the US. This, Nora and Minc cautioned, was a potentially serious threat to French national security.
To redress these issues and give a boost to French national pride, Nora and Minc recommended massive government investments in the French telephone industry. Specifically, they also floated the innovative idea that once France’s telephone services had been properly revamped and updated, the government should layer a network of interactive services atop the old telephone network and make those services accessible through a computer terminal that ordinary French citizens would have in their homes. Once this additional network had been built, the French government would maintain it and set the rules of the game while allowing private individuals and organizations to build and offer whatever additional services the public might desire.
With this in mind, Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones, or PTT, the state-owned-and-controlled postal and telecommunications company (which, in 1991, was split into France Télécom and La Poste, the former of which, since July of 2013, has been known as Orange S.A.), set to work building the Minitel network. In all, the project was the result of a collaborative effort led by Bernard Marti, who was then the director of the Centre commun d’études de télévision et télécommunications. It also built upon and improved the designs of similar digital telecommunications systems in other countries, most notably the UK’s Prestel.
The Minitel was officially completed on July 13, 1980, at which point it was presented to President Gerard d‘Estaing. A mere two days later on July 15, the system was rolled out for its very first trial run in Saint-Malo, a French port town located in Brittany. The trial involved a mere 55 residential and business telephone customers, but the terminal proved useful enough and easy enough to use that the trial was considered a success. Following this trial, the French government, through PTT, gradually expanded Minitel to other areas and conducted larger tests, reaching 2,500 users in the fall of 1980 and then 4,000 by May of 1981. Eventually, by 1982, Minitel was deemed ready for general commercial use.
PTT released Minitel with two express intentions: increasing the usage and penetration of France’s telephone lines and saving money on the cost of printing phone books. Both of these ends appear to have been accomplished. As the French government began giving out Minitel terminals to people for free, usage proliferated widely and quickly. Indeed, by 1986, about 1.4 million terminals were already connected to the Minitel network. By 1988, this number went up to 3 million. In 1999, when Minitel usage was about at its peak, France Télécom claimed that about 25 million people regularly used nearly 9 million terminals. During the system’s first eight years of operation, about 8 billion francs were spent to set up the network and distribute the terminals. Over that time, PTT claims to have made a total profit of 3.5 billion francs. A further 500 million francs per year were saved as a result of no longer having to print as many phone books.
There’s also an impressive number and type of Minitel services to consider. When read out, the roster of some of these services sounds strikingly modern. In addition to its central telephone directory, the Minitel network provided users with such things as credit card payment processing, the ability to buy magazine subscriptions, airline tickets, vacation packages, and other products, computer gaming, and, of course, chat rooms and online dating. Newspapers, worried about competition from the Minitel network, were some of the first that the government allowed to set up services there. The daily paper Libération thus offered a 24-hour news service through Minitel and was famously able to give results from the 1984 Summer Olympics in real-time. At its peak, the network offered more than 25,000 services set up by as many as 10,000 different companies.
Unsurprisingly, pornography of all kinds also proliferated wildly across the network. Adult chat rooms, known as messageries roses (“pink chat rooms”), were extremely popular almost from the very first moment that the network launched. They were so popular, in fact, and generated such heavy traffic, that they once overwhelmed and crashed the Minitel network in 1985. At their zenith, the messageries roses generated four million hours of traffic on the Minitel network per month. As can be imagined, when the sheer extent of all this was made manifest, it caused the French government some significant embarrassment. Compounding the embarrassment even further was the fact that many of those claiming to be women in the messageries roses were not women at all, but men paid to pretend to be women and serve the chat rooms’ male clientele. As one French telecom executive wryly put it, “[I]n my opinion, about a million of those hours every month are through the chat services that create ‘false persons’”.
Despite all of this — despite the network crash, and despite fears that minors may stumble into messageries roses — the French government ultimately decided not to crack down on these chat rooms by force. The government concluded that keeping minors from using adult chat rooms should be a matter of personal responsibility on the part of parents.
Minitel vs. the Internet: Vive la Différence?
Despite what seems at first blush like a mostly rosy record, the Minitel network was eventually shut down on June 30, 2012. Indeed, there were plans to shut down the network for quite a few years before that, plans which were delayed only because so many people had gotten used to the Minitel and did not want to switch to another system.
In the meantime, the internet that we all know and love began gaining a foothold in the 1990s, soon enough experiencing explosive popular growth worldwide. This, therefore, raises an important question: Why did the internet displace the Minitel network in France? Or, to put it another way: Why, despite the fact that Minitel was already able to offer a large array of online services, did it fall as the internet rose? Why did Minitel not take hold in countries like the US?
There has been a long and passionate debate on this subject, with learned opinions coming down on both sides. Some, like media scholar Julien Mailland, co-author of the book Minitel: Welcome to the Internet, regards Minitel as, the whole, highly successful. In Mailland’s view, the Minitel network, and the French government’s role in maintaining it, provide an excellent example of the wisdom and power of a policy that has since come to be known as net neutrality. According to Mailland, if the government simply builds and maintains a network or telecommunications infrastructure, allowing private parties equal access to that infrastructure and the right to build services on top of it, the result can be an explosion of innovation. Mailland believes that the Minitel case — the ways in which it so remarkably anticipated the online world of subsequent decades —vindicates this contention.
Critics of net neutrality, however, point out that network bandwidth is like any other resource: it is scarce and therefore must be economized. When network providers are not allowed to discriminate between who needs their services more urgently — as revealed by who is willing to pay more for them — or when the network provider is a government agency that doesn’t need to discriminate because it doesn’t need to worry about making a profit, the result can be a “tragedy of the commons” situation in which everyone rushes onto the network at once and crashes it — precisely as happened to Minitel in 1985.
The fact that the Minitel network was overseen by a state-run monopolistic corporation also caused some serious problems for users. Going Minitel rates for many services could be quite exorbitant, particularly in the network’s later years. Many also allege that France Télécom’s high levels of debt were partly caused by its poor administration of the Minitel network and that this poor administration was a direct result of the company’s monopolistic status.
Thus, the critics charge that even if those like Mailland are correct that government action is what allowed the French public to have broad access to online services before any other country did, the French people may well have been significantly overcharged. And even if Mailland is right that a lack of net neutrality rules is what prevented Minitel from taking root in the US in the 1990s, it may be a good thing that didn’t take root. After all, as impressive as Minitel was for its time, by today’s standards, its capabilities are extremely primitive. Remember that each Minitel was a mere videotex terminal that only displayed text to the user and could not actually perform any computation locally. If Minitel had been implemented in the US by government edict, could this have retarded innovation and prevented the adoption of the more efficient and powerful internet?
In France, that is almost what happened. Even though, as mentioned, the Minitel network was eventually shut down in 2012 and France did eventually transition fully to the internet, it took longer to do so than other developed countries. Indeed, many in France continued to run Minitel emulators on their computers well into the 1990s instead of working on creating proper French websites. It was only the fear of being left behind by other countries that prompted France to make the switch. If Minitel had been widely used in other countries and there was no such fear, where would we be today?
How Minitel Worked
So, with our historical excursus now out of the way, how did Minitel actually work? How is it that millions of French men and women were able to access so many thousands of services that were so strikingly similar to the online services we take for granted today — and with 1980’s technology, no less?
The first and most important thing to understand about the Minitel’s functioning is that it was a dumb terminal — that is, it performed no actual computation or processing of data on its own but merely accessed data from a large central server upon users’ requests and presented those data upon its screen, usually in text form.
The Minitel itself was a combination modem, keyboard, and nine-inch videotex screen, all packed into a single plastic tabletop terminal. To access the Minitel network, one first had to take one’s phone and dial a short code to connect to a Mintier server. This code enabled one to connect to a PAVI, or Point d’Acces Videotexte (a “videotext access point’). The PAVI was located on the analog phone line, meaning that the Minitel network and the connections between various Minitel units and servers all functioned atop France’s analog phone network. Once the code was dialed, the Minitel unit would turn on, access the required PAVI, and connect to the requested server. From there, users would have to navigate further to the services they desired using the Minitel itself. All actual computation was done on the servers themselves.
All packet switching — transferring of data from servers to users’ units — was done with France’s Transpac network. Minitel also used the V.23 modem standard, which allowed for 9 KB/min download, considered fairly fast for its time — especially in the 1980s. The Minitel terminal used an AZERTY keyboard rather than the QWERTY keyboard more familiar to the anglophone world.
Minitel services were often identified with the code one needed to enter to connect to the servers that provided them. Thus advertisements for Minitel services nearly always contained that code — sometimes containing little more than the code. “3615” was the most common dial code, while “3617” was reserved for more expensive services. From October 18, 1996, the code for the phone book directory was “3611.”
Minitel’s Historical Significance
Though it is tempting, when one first hears just when Minitel originally emerged, to dismiss it as an ultimately parochial and primitive experiment that, for all of its intrinsic interest, fell in the end before the march of technological advancement, the truth is that Minitel did have some impressive capabilities. It allowed the French public to do things which, outside of a few rarefied homebrew computer clubs, no one could do until quite recently. For this alone, it is a significant achievement. For showing us that millions could talk to friends, check bus schedules, order tickets and do countless other things online, Minitel gave us an early glimpse of the power of the digital age.
More specifically, Minitel also showed the power of technology to help organize mass movements and bring about political change. In striking anticipation of movements like the Arab Spring, French university students in 1986 used the Minitel system to coordinate large-scale protests and evade the police.
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