This past weekend marked the end of an area as France shut down a pioneering network that gave millions of people in the country their first taste of online access: Minitel.
Starting in the early ’80s, the Minitel network was a joint venture between France Telecom and La Poste, the French post office.
The idea was irresistable: get a free terminal to access the network in exchange for bidding adieu to the paper phone book. Of course, it seems like a good idea in hindsight. Who uses those anymore?
Minitel spread like wildfire through France. Using the phone directory was a lot more convenient with Minitel, thanks to its search engine, but a lot of other services sprang up that let people do things that are common on the modern Internet: buy plane and train tickets, check the weather, check stocks, read the latest news, and even shop at online stores. As with the modern Internet, less savory services also became extremely popular, taking the form of erotic chat lines.
The “3615” phone prefix became as ubiquitous as “.com” is today.
One difference between the modern Internet and Minitel was that newspapers actually figured out how to make money with it instead of whining about the Web the way modern newspapers did. Most services were paid for by charging to a customer’s phone bill. (It was run by the phone company, after all.)
Minitel even became a catalyst for political action when students coordinated a nationwide strike using the service in 1986.
The party, however, couldn’t last forever. As popular as it was, even the French still wanted to connect to the Internet when it became popular. The dial-up text-based Minitel technology, while high tech in 1982, just couldn’t compete against the flashy graphics of the Web. Although it was criticized for allegedly hampering adoption of the Web, some French people thought that the Minitel actually helped the country prepare for the Internet.
Even though usage had dropped dramatically from its peak of 25 million users to a fraction of that number, but it was popular enough to stay online despite several previous attempts to kill it. Minitel’s luck finally ran out, as the network shut down for good on June 30.
The francophone community on Twitter seemed to understand the significance of the event, holding a wake for Minitel using the “#ripminitel” hashtag. So let’s raise a glass of wine and bid adieu to the pioneering network.
Photo credit: Christian Heindel