30 June 2012

So Farewell Minitel

France went online in the 1980s - long before we did in Britain. However it was not the internet that brought services into the French homes it was a system known as Minitel . While it was a wolrd beater in the 1980s it was a technological dead end. Today sees Minitel close for good.

In the 1970s France lagged behind other western nations in terms of telecommunications, with the nation's homes underserved by telephones. The state communications company came up with a system combining the telephone and information technology and, in 1982, rolled out the Minitel, delivering the sets free to homes – the first widely available screen-keyboard combination in any country.

First it was used as an electronic yellow pages. Other services quickly followed, paid very easily through charges per-minute on the family phone bill, with service providers receiving a cut. Soon the French were using it to check exam results, apply to university, book trains and chat online, years before theinternet.

At its height in the mid-1990s, the French owned about 9m Minitel devices, with 25m users connecting to more than 23,000 services. One popular service was "Minitel Rose", the world's first electronic adult chatrooms, where people using pseudonyms patiently exchanged steamy messages that took what would now seem an eternity to appear on screen.

France tried to market Minitel abroad but failed to get big international takers, and it was eventually overtaken in the late 1990s by the world wide web.
Minitel's official closure comes whe it still has about 800,000 users. Farewell parties and newspaper memorials are reminiscing about the time when, thanks to the Minitel, the French public could electronically check the weather, book a holiday, monitor their bank accounts and view share prices or horoscopes more than a decade before any other country.
ValĂ©rie Schafer, co-author of the book Minitel: France's Digital Childhood, said: "At the start in the 80s, there was a real sense of pride in Minitel as a success story of our national industry – with the one problem that we never exported it; it remained very French. Then at the end of the 1990s and in 2000s the discourse changed and Minitel was talked about as quite square, outdated, behind.
"But now it's the end of Minitel, we're discovering that the French have an attachment to it, as part of our industrial history. Despite all the negative talk of the past, it's now being seen as a success in terms of the national economy. Despite everything, there's a nostalgia for an era when French developed new ideas, took risks on ideas that didn't just look to the US or outside models: a time when we wanted to invent our own voice."

So farewell.

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