France Bids Adieu to Minitel, Its Internet Forerunner

France's precursor to the Internet, the clunky yet beloved Minitel, is set to go dark for good at the end of June, 30 years after its revolutionary launch

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Remy de la Mauviniere / AP

A woman uses the Minitel, France's online system, at a post office in Paris on Jan. 29, 1996

Before there was AOL, Amazon, Groupon, Google, Facebook, Yahoo! or any of today’s other Internet titans, there was the Minitel: the boxy little terminal that allowed French clients to access a wide array of services — including, bien sûr, hot chat rooms — through a France Telecom phone line. By the time it hit its peak in 1995 of 20 million users connecting to 25,000 services through 6.5 million terminals, Minitel had made rudimentary interactive, real-time navigation a daily part of French life at a time when few people had heard much about the World Wide Web.

But its earlier inception and popularity did not allow Minitel to prevent the rise of a newer, more powerful, rapidly evolving rival known as the Internet — whose superfast connections and multimedia sites left Minitel’s sluggish, text-only format looking seriously dated. And so on June 30 — 30 years after its 1982 launch — the Minitel network will go off-line for good, bringing an end to a unique era in French social and industrial history.

Although about 800,000 terminals remain distributed around France, neither those nor the roughly 2,000 services still on offer via Minitel are considered sufficient to justify continued operation. The decision to pull Minitel’s plug will seem like a no-brainer to most French people under the age of 25, who can scarcely recall a life that wasn’t all Internet, all the time. But Minitel’s retirement stands to be a nostalgic moment for older generations in France that still remember when the small, tan-colored plastic terminals were as ubiquitous and familiar in offices and homes as cigarette smoke and seemingly endless lunches. As outmoded and dorky as it may seem now, Minitel was a very useful, snazzy, even beloved part of life in France.

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By the early 1990s, using Minitel to look up phone numbers, make train reservations, buy theater tickets or access the media for news updates was as common yet distinctly French as picking up a baguette on the way home for dinner (boulangerie delivery being one service Minitel didn’t offer). Armed with a desktop Minitel, a user could obtain information or get tasks done that otherwise would have involved running around outside — or making a series of calls to notoriously rude interlocutors (the rise of the Minitel having preceded France’s service revolution by several years). For well over two decades, the number 3615, which Minitel users dialed to connect to associated toll services, was heard in French advertisements, public-service announcements and ordinary conversation in the same habitual way “www” resonates around the globe today. Contrary to the globe-spanning Web that followed, however, Minitel remained an almost exclusively French tool.

But though it failed to spread around the world, Minitel became a source of pride for a lot of people in France who appreciated its significance in a wider modernization drive that included the launch of the high-speed TGV train in 1981. In a nation that had a mere 5 million telephones in the mid-’70s — and where enduring the long wait to have a line installed was no guarantee it would actually work — the Minitel was an iconic part of France’s successful transformation from an underdeveloped communications and information-technology country into a cutting-edge innovator. To speed up that evolution, France Telecom handed out millions of Minitel terminals to businesses and households for free to use over an upgraded and expanded telephonic grid. Some Minitel services, like the national phone directory, were also gratis. But most services came with a small per-minute fee tacked onto monthly phone bills — payment that France Telecom split with service providers and that swiftly became a big source of revenue.

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Yet like its Internet successor, Minitel also frightened those seeing it as a challenge to the established order. Initially, France Telecom had to limit the kinds of services Minitel hosted when retailers, travel agencies and customer-service departments of companies protested the anticipated loss of business from consumers buying goods, reserving tickets and getting information on their own through a terminal.

Similarly, French media also became spooked by the notion of people following news via Minitel rather than buying traditional publications. Those outlets eventually relaxed when they realized that they could not only shape and regulate their Minitel content so it didn’t undermine hard-copy sales — but also earn extra money through the new teletext fees. Later, however, those same publications wound up losing even more revenue to Minitel than they gained through news access, when people stopped placing their classified ads in traditional media and ran them instead on cheaper (or often free) specialized Minitel platforms.

And like the Internet, Minitel’s nascent online technology was also quickly put to work feeding society’s seemingly insatiable sexual appetite. Thousands of French households saw their telephone bills rise as men logged endless Minitel hours on hot-chat services (usually, it turned out, with male employees paid to pose as aroused and prowling women). Such erotic services — known collectively as Minitel rose — became so profitable that traditional media outlets hired specialized companies to create libido-throttling platforms of their own.

Xavier Niel, the French billionaire entrepreneur, owes his fortune to the business he ran developing a variety of Minitel rose services, which he sold for millions at the tender age of 19. Niel used much of that money to found and build Free, which is now one of France’s biggest mobile-services and Internet-access providers. Ironically, Free’s rise has made the company — and Niel — the biggest threat to France’s reigning champion in the sector, the France Telecom affiliate Orange. Despite the ferocious and at times bitter competition between the two giants, however, it’s a fair bet that Niel will join his rivals on June 30 to bid a fond farewell to the Minitel project that played such a big role in their respective companies, as well as France’s IT and social history.

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