Posted on: 29 Jun 2012
Written by: chris
Farewell to Minitel, a French interactive telecommunications service that predated the Web but, after thirty years precisely, is being turned off on the last day of June this year.
What is/was Minitel? It’s a system that will probably have been familiar – at least from a distance – to anyone visiting an average French household in the late Eighties or early Nineties. It operated over the phone lines and was evidenced by a small all-in-one unit with a screen and keyboard which you’d usually find sitting next to the telephone in your host’s house.
As other commentators have noted in the press recently, Minitel was in many ways ahead of its time. It’s been compared to the British Ceefax teletext system, but it was more than that: while Ceefax was primarily a way of consuming packaged news and information, its Gallic rival aspired to provide a two-way service far more akin to what we now expect from the Internet. Not only could you book travel tickets and make reservations online, but you could also access an early precursor of email and – perhaps most notoriously – engage in live text-based chat with other parties. Visitors to France over the past thirty years will perhaps remember endless advertising hoardings offering dubious-looking delights available by dialling “36 15 NAUGHTYWOMEN” (or something similar), which would in all probability have connected you to a bored man in an office with a keyboard and instructions to drain as much of your bank account as possible.
Minitel never really evolved beyond its original promise, and was therefore – inevitably – overtaken many years ago by the myriad services available on the Internet. Reflecting on what the French will be losing and gaining respectively as the last few tens of thousands of users are forced to migrate to the Web, it would appear to be a case of plus ça change. The only real difference now is that the bored blonde you’re seeing on your webcam is slightly more likely to be a woman…