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July 25, 2011

France Telecom Saying Au Revoir to Minitel

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, France Telecom (FT) will be ending it now seemingly ancient Minitel online information service on June 30, 2012. It is a day for reflection.

For those of us old enough to remember, prior to the Internet service providers around the world were looking to develop and deploy online information services, called videotex. The idea was to have what we would now call a “dumb” terminal – 512k memory, monochrome screen, bulky keyboard, snail-like access over residential copper lines, the size of a toaster oven, etc. – become a primary information access device in people’s homes. The initial goal was to provide access to directory services and other rudimentary information so that paper directories would not have to be published. 

In 1982 France Telecom (News - Alert) (FT) launched its videotex service under the Minitel brand. It allowed users to not only access their version of the white and yellow pages, but also to make online purchases, train reservations, check stock prices, have an electronic mail box, and chat with each other. Terminals were free. The goal was to achieve virtually universal access as quickly as possible, and to push France to the forefront of the dawning information age. And, for a reasonable period of time, it worked on multiple fronts.

In fact, surprisingly as late as February of 2009, FT was reporting it still had 10 million monthly connections of which over 1 million were for directory service.  And, last year it still had revenues of €30 million, and Minitel information was accessible by 25 million people (over 40 percent of the French population). However, the time has finally come to say au revoir. The Broadband era makes Minitel superfluous. What is amazing is actually that it took this long.

Nostalgia for the service has already started. After all, Minitel caused an explosion of services to exploit its pervasive access to French homes. Foreshadowing a conundrum on the Internet, the popular and lucrative growth of adult content services created a furor. The French government, while saying it was up to parents to control access to content, wisely enacted a tax on the extremely popular and lucrative pornographic online services. 

It may be goodbye but this is truly a case of a fond farewell. As a leading indicator and test ground of what people would want, could want and how they would behave once given connectivity and the ability to create an online community, we all owe Minitel a moment of recognition.    

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Peter Bernstein is a technology industry veteran, having worked in multiple capacities with several of the industry's biggest brands, including Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert), Telcordia, HP, Siemens, Nortel, France Telecom, and others, and having served on the Advisory Boards of 15 technology startups. To read more of Peter's work, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell
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