Minitel: commonly used in French homes

March 10, 2023
by Mark Ollig

In 1982, people in France called the Minitel online service telephone number to establish a data connection with a mainframe computer for retrieving information and services.

By the end of 1983, 120,000 Minitel data display terminals were installed in France.

The French state-owned telecommunications agency supported the Minitel network, supplying its services and data terminals.

Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones (Postal, Telegraph, and Telephone), or PTT, provided the country’s postal and telecommunication services.

PTT initially looked to reduce the high costs of printing and mailing paper phonebooks by supplying free access to an online residential and business listing telephone number and address directory database using a display terminal.

French telephone subscribers were supplied with data display terminals for free, which were officially categorized as loaned equipment and considered the property of PTT.

Initially, the Minitel online system was designed for phone-related services such as obtaining directory telephone numbers and addresses.

However, the Minitel system experienced exceptional growth and continually added additional services, including paid service offerings, which helped PTT support it.

During this time, French newspaper publishers expressed concern about the public’s use of the new technology for accessing news, sports, entertainment, and other information, along with the paid business advertisements on Minitel, which they said would seriously decrease the demand for newspapers and reduce their revenues.

In response, the French government acted to safeguard newspapers by instituting a rule stating that only registered newspapers could advertise services over Minitel.

Registering a newspaper in France was a relatively straightforward process.

After registration, many new owners would deliberately not fund the newspaper and instead financially support their online Minitel service and product ads, which generated substantial profits.

Over time, Minitel expanded its service offerings with weather reports, travel reservations, business financial information, various school and student portals, government administration services, and online shopping.

On March 27, 1986, years before the web was publicly available, the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper wrote an article on an electronic information system accessible from one’s home computer data terminal, defining it as “the business of offering information and services through computers in the home.”

The newspaper also cited the French government’s providing terminal display equipment (Minitel data terminals) free to households, where “the country’s Minitel videotex system has proved immensely popular.”

From 1990 into the 2000s, new online startup companies appeared on Minitel offering specialized services such as themed messaging boards, computer gaming, mail-order, dating services, real-time chat texting, and numerous resource databases.

As the telecommunication network and computing systems advanced, additional services were added, increasing the popularity of Minitel. It became as commonly used in French homes as the television and telephone.

Several equipment manufacturers began producing Minitel terminals with slightly altered designs and added features.

Minitel kiosk data terminals were installed in publicly accessible locations, becoming interwoven into everyday life.

In January of 1991, Tim Berners-Lee showed his version of the web to a small group of people at a physics convention in France.

As many of you know, he wrote the software for the web while working at the CERN research center in Switzerland, which is close to the French border.

During the convention, Berners-Lee talked about his new software program for sending hypertext/hyperlinked documents over the internet.

At the time, many people in France were using the Minitel online network, not the internet.

The web would not become available to the French public until 1994.

By the end of 1994, France Telecom (formerly PTT) reported 6,473,000 Minitel data terminals nationwide.

During 1998, Minitel’s user base grew to over 14 million.

However, its user base decreased as the World Wide Web gained popularity in French homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, the French government continued supporting Minitel by maintaining its network and providing services and data terminals.

By 2010, the client base of Minitel was rapidly disappearing as a growing number of its users were transitioning to the web.

On June 30, 2012, France Telecom announced the end of the Minitel service, despite having approximately 650,000 Minitel display terminals still in use.

The reason given was because of the escalating expenses related to the maintenance of the system.

As for the Minitel display terminals, they were collected, and their parts were recycled.

More than 40 years ago, Minitel revolutionized how French citizens accessed information, services, and entertainment using an interactive electronic display terminal linked with a central mainframe computer over the telephone network.

“The aim was to computerize French society and ensure France’s technological independence,” said Karin Lefevre of France Telecom about Minitel.

As a predecessor to the web, Minitel helped pave the way during the emergence of the online digital world.

Vive la France.

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