Minitel, we hardly knew ye
June 9, 2012 6:53 AM   Subscribe

Minitel bows out It was France's first glimpse of an online future. But now, 30 years after it was invented, the wired experiment that foreshadowed the World Wide Web is about to lose its connection once and for all.
posted by Wolof (42 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It never spread abroad and was overtaken in the 1990s by the "real" internet "invented" in the United States.

Uhm, the author obviously doesn't understand that the internet was being developed in various forms decades before Minitel.
posted by GavinR at 7:14 AM on June 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

Great article, and the bit about Gerome Nox (an "animatrice" or hostess on one of the first Minitel text-sex lines) was a scream!

You know, back in the mid-80s, when I toured Europe a lot, there were at least a couple of French homes I found myself in that had these Minitel set-ups. It seemed incredible and exotic to me, truly futuristic. I saw one young woman in Paris search for restaurants on hers, and I was duly impressed.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:22 AM on June 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

A typically lazy "French exceptionalism" article of the kind the UK press specialises in: you take something the French do slightly different from the "rest of the world" (read UK/US if that) than talk why what they're doing is a) wrong b) bound to fail/has been a failure or c) needs to be given up if France wants to "catch up".

There are interesting articles to be written about minitel and how it differs/compares to what's now the internet; this isn't it.

For a start, minitel is of course neither an "experiment" (with its connotations of not being real) nor a failure. It provided France with cheap, online, popular services during a time when the state of the art was the BBS and was far more accessible to "normal" people than those were. The French weren't even the only ones to experiment with these sort of services; several other countries had them too (Japan, Holland and yes, the UK just to name three) though nowhere was there the same kind of take up.

That it was successful is shown by how the system continued to survive even after internet access became cheap, easy and widespread in the nineties. As such obviously the internet in the end was "better", less limited, but that doesn't mean minitel was a failure. It fulfilled a need at a time when the internet was still only a tool for a few priviledged defence researchers in the US.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:32 AM on June 9, 2012 [38 favorites]

My high school French textbooks devoted an inordinately large amount of time to minitel, despite the fact that by then (99-02) the internet was already in pretty full flower. I looked for them the few times I was in France after that, but never found one. I always wanted to see one in action.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:41 AM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I actually remember reading about Minitel in one of those French magazines we got for French class. It also talked about some online game called "Meridian 59." Pfft, like that kinda thing will ever catch on.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:46 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's an intro video to minitel from a TV need program in 1982.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:49 AM on June 9, 2012

NEWS! Not need.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:49 AM on June 9, 2012

What's 80s Robot going to use in France now?
posted by condour75 at 8:14 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Minitel was in part the inspiration for Prodigy (nee Trintex), an endeavor by Sears, CBS and IBM, back in the day. The delivery system was the same -- NAPLPS, with VGA-level graphics and crude animation capability, all delivered by a hissing, beeping 1200 baud modem. I worked at Prodigy for 9 years in the White Plains office. *sigh* Those were the days...
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:25 AM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I registered for classes at the Université de Lyon in 1997 via Minitel. It was so easy, I was astonished.

When I did a bit of web development for the CAF (national social aid umbrella organization), I also had to update their Minitel pages – that was in 2009-2010.

The article only talks about "Minitel screens"; shame there wasn't more investigation into terminals at La Poste and the CAF, as well as in universities, that still have Minitel connections.

Guy_Inamonkeysuit, I used Prodigy back in the day too, at least as early as 1990 :) Interesting to learn that the delivery system was the same!
posted by fraula at 8:28 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

"It never spread abroad and was overtaken in the 1990s by the "real" internet "invented" in the United States."

Uhm, the author obviously doesn't understand that the internet was being developed in various forms decades before Minitel.

These two statements are not contradictory.
posted by zamboni at 8:38 AM on June 9, 2012

zamboni, the writer is implying that the internet came after Minitel. They are obviously confusing the web with the internet.
posted by GavinR at 8:41 AM on June 9, 2012

My parent's wouldn't pay for one, but I bored my friends in Paris who DID have it for hours playing with it. It blew my mind in 1986.
It blew my mind last year to hear it was still going.
posted by Busithoth at 8:59 AM on June 9, 2012

If you ever were in Paris and used Minitel to request a cab from Taxis G7, I wrote the application for that. In 1992 I was working in Seattle for Motorola, and Taxis G7 was using Motorola's TaxiPak system for dispatching calls to cabs via a wireless two-line display in cabs. I spent about a month in Paris working at G7 using a PC Minitel simulator. I don't recall at all how the programming was done - probably something C based. During live testing, I requested a lot of cabs from "Personne Imaginaire" so no driver would take the request.

Just for kicks, I tried to find an online Minitel emulator to see my old work (Taxis G7 is still listed in the directory at "3614"). Alas, the Mac version was written for OS 9, the Windows version won't install on Windows 7, and I can't get the web-based Java version to work.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:06 AM on June 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

Well, as a widely deployed technology, Minitel does predate the internet. Minitel was widely available in France years before home internet connexions became common anywhere in the world.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:07 AM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Minitel is also part of France's big state-funded technology R&D complex, which is also responsible for Pleumeur Bodou's antennas (the original antenna's low-noise amplifier was cooled with friggin' liquid nitrogen), Ariane, France's nuclear arsenal, and, for a time, its telephone switches.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:14 AM on June 9, 2012

zamboni, the writer is implying that the internet came after Minitel. They are obviously confusing the web with the internet.

Well, that's a reasonable elision. The Internet obviously preceded the Web, but the great bulk of customers didn't join until the Web made it attractive. For an awful, awful lot of people, HTTP is the only high-level protocol they use....DHCP or PPPoE to get an IP address, DNS for name lookups, and HTTP for everything that they can actually see.

It seems to me that mixing the two services together, at that point, is perfectly reasonable. I suspect many users may never go further than that.
posted by Malor at 9:19 AM on June 9, 2012

That is really cool, and I had no idea.
posted by bongo_x at 9:36 AM on June 9, 2012

GavinR, the sentence says that Minitel was overtaken by the Internet in the 1990s, and that it was created in the U.S. It doesn't really imply anything about when it was created.

Minitel's downfall, of course, is that it was top-down and proprietary, and it took the walled garden approach to content like every other online service from the pre-Internet days. In order to charge for everything they have to be in charge of everything. But it wasn't really that unique, let's not forget about good ol' Compuserve, which predated Minitel by around four years. But Compuserve is pretty much gone now too, mutated into unrecognizability after being bought out by AOL.

This all gives me an idea for a FPP....
posted by JHarris at 9:41 AM on June 9, 2012

Minitel was an astonishing service for its time.

It's hard to explain if you grew up post-Internet, but the services it offered were straight out of science fiction at the time. They were game changers before anyone knew there was a game.

Requiescat in pace.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:02 AM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

An exploration of all of the gardens that were groomed while the great forest was growing around them would be terribly interesting. I touched on a few of them coming up into the online world, but there's so much history there that the general consensus only barely scratches.
posted by flaterik at 10:04 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

What is interesting is that in France, reasearcher Louis Pouzin built a research network based on a protocol that greatly influenced the development of TCP/IP, the data protocol used by the Web.

Yet when France decided to build Minitel, they rejected TCP/IP, using the ultimately less flexible X.25 protocol instead.
posted by eye of newt at 10:17 AM on June 9, 2012

Free, one of the major French ISPs, was founded by Xavier Niel, who started his entrepreneurial life at 19 in the mid-1980s by creating Minitel sex chat services.The previous video is SFW, but these services and their ubiquitous (mildy NSFW) ads (very NSFW) caused some sort of moral panic in France at the time. Niel made enough money to buy a Minitel porn company (Fermic Multimedia) and later turned it into a large provider of telecommunication services.
posted by elgilito at 10:20 AM on June 9, 2012

Le service en prépaiement est définitivement fermé.

So even though I can easily install the xtel emulator as a Debian package, and even though port 513 on is still open, there's nothing behind it to log into any more :-(
posted by flabdablet at 10:22 AM on June 9, 2012

Minitel is similar to Teletext, which is BBC's invention that allows you to read broadcast text on your TV. Both were developed in the 1970s and rolled out in the 1980s, both feature blocky graphics, both have been enormously popular in parts of Europe, and neither has crossed the Atlantic.

While Teletext is about to be discontinued in the UK, it is thriving in the Nordic countries. According to this excellent article, a third of Sweden's population still use it at least once per week to catch up on news. Why are people still using it? When each line of text can only be 39 characters long, you can't have ads, and you have to focus on only the top news stories.

Finally: Here is what Teletext pages look like. And you can now get Teletext on your smart phone.
posted by Triplanetary at 10:35 AM on June 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! frshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
posted by Riton at 10:40 AM on June 9, 2012

posted by oddman at 11:18 AM on June 9, 2012

I used Minitel on my 2001 trip to Paris. It was installed in the rental apartment my family and I stayed in. Kind of cool... but not really any match for the internet café down the street, where I could communicate with the girl I was trying to get with at the time.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:28 AM on June 9, 2012

I can just imagine some French artist who changed their name to Personne Imaginaire wondering why his cabs never show up and having some sort of existential crisis over it.
posted by srboisvert at 11:48 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

ultimately less flexible X.25 protocol instead.

Oh man, I haven't thought about X.25 in years. I maintained some X.25 <> TCP translator code for a while in the mid-nineties. I won't say it was good times exactly... But now that I think of it, it must have been used to access minitel from the Internet. Cool beans.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:49 AM on June 9, 2012

Lord, please, put that stuff into the darkest corner of hell. Minitel wasn't cheap, and after one year of use, going from one fortune teller to the other, paying by the minute, my mother had to change her phone to a card payphone.
posted by nicolin at 12:15 PM on June 9, 2012

I can just imagine some French artist who changed their name to Personne Imaginaire wondering why his cabs never show up and having some sort of existential crisis over it.

If you've already changed your name to Personne Imaginaire, then the existential crisis is a preexisting condition. The cab companies can hardly be held responsible.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:13 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

omg, this is going to disconnect thousands of fembots from the dataverse.
posted by 3mendo at 1:23 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing a store from my local Baby Bell selling a Minitel based service back in the early 90's. It was tended by a bored-looking grad student, and it looked like there were never any customers at that store. Way, way too late for the US market, back when AOL and Compuserve were big, and dialups were common place.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:23 PM on June 9, 2012

posted by iviken at 2:04 PM on June 9, 2012

The mention of teletext (BBC's version being Ceefax, mentioned in the article) reminds me of the more interactive version Voxtel (I think).
Teletext is simple text and graphics in spare capacity in TV broadcasts. Voxtel used telephones as a control by giving each user an individual page given to them in a phone call.
The problem with this approach of one method for providing the upload and a nationally broadcast download meant you could guess a starting page number and follow someone else's session. Which was sometimes interesting...
posted by edd at 2:22 PM on June 9, 2012

I hope there is a Jason Scott Archive Team en Français who will be preserving thirty years of Minitel consensually-constructed online culture. People pour their lives into these systems and then some bean counter (whether at Geocities, Google Video, or France Telecom) decides it's time to destroy it all with no concern for migration or backups. How much was it really costing to keep the old thing running? Is this an austerity measure, or does someone else want the bandwidth?
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:28 PM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

A few related links:
"Now & Next is a glanceable for BBC Radio. It tells you what’s on the main BBC (Analogue and Digital) Radio Channels now and next, in the style of the old Ceefax page: frankly one of the best pieces of information design ever.

It fits really well on the iPad and on the Kindle, as all good quiet glanceables should do."
"Teletext Babez ... [a] collection of raunchy German teletext."
posted by zamboni at 9:43 PM on June 9, 2012

I remember looking briefly at the Minitel console while taking a break from writing a paper at the library at the Centre Pompidou in Paris during my study-abroad time as a sophomore in college (1990). The library catalog was on a separate system; I was just looking at Minitel out of curiosity. I remember it being very menu-based, somewhat like Gopher; I think I looked up my last name in some national directory or something, and then walked away. I had no idea it was still up and running--that would be like finding out they were still using VAX terminals at my alma mater.

Last time I was in France (2008), posters in the subway no longer had Minitel numbers on them--they had QR codes.

posted by gillyflower at 11:09 PM on June 9, 2012

A moment of silence for Minitel and its games.

posted by ersatz at 6:32 AM on June 10, 2012

Teletext - the ITV/C4 service that took over from Oracle when the franchise license expired on 31/12/92, confusingly named Teletext - had a page in 1995 or so on which people would phone a premium rate number, input a message using an alphanumeric code, and then see it displayed on a Teletext page, like a bulletin board. I was DYING to use this service - two posters who communicated with each other using Green Day lyrics fascinated me - but I knew I'd never be allowed, so I used to just watch the page avidly, as it had about fifty sub-pages and was updated several times daily. There were several letters pages on Teletext (Megazine where teenagers could be LOL RANDOM - and which was even more fascinating to me as a ten year old - the astonishingly right wing news comment page for which 'get real' was a leitmotif, the music news page) but that was the only one which was interactive in the same way that the internet came to be when cheap dial-up was made available in the early 00s.

I imagine that's what Minitel was a bit like. Has anyone got an example of a poster with a Minitel number on?
posted by mippy at 7:53 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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