Born to France’s postal and telecommunications ministry in 1978, the Minitel was conceived to reduce the costs of printing phone directories. The inexpensive desktop terminal plugged into standard telephone sockets and at first did little more than look up phone numbers. Early models featured an eight-inch screen scrolling out block text and blockier graphics, pixels at a time; one user described the colour as a “foul combination of dog-poo brown and sickly beige.” Development cost the government tens of billions of francs, and it became a centrepiece of President François Mitterrand’s push to make France a leader in aviation, nuclear energy and electronics. Its fortunes spoke volumes about that approach.
After field-testing in Brittany, the Minitel landed in Paris in 1982 and spread rapidly. Crucially, terminals were provided free of charge while contemporary PCs were fearfully expensive. Services quickly expanded as time use fees encouraged the private sector to develop new applications. Before long, users could buy groceries, send electronic mail, check railroad and airline schedules, look up stock quotes, read the news and pay bills. Farmers tracked weather conditions and commodity prices. Foreigners looked on in envy. “The Minitel craze is one case where government intervention, frequently derided as an obstacle to economic change, seems to have helped technological innovation,” marvelled The Washington Post in 1986. Efforts to export the technology, though, failed miserably. Inevitably, Minitel also allowed the libidinous French to talk dirty to one another. “More than half the traffic consists of calls from people who are interested in sex,” reported a scandalized Sunday Times in 1986, noting the proliferation of obscene dating and chat services. Those with vigorous imaginations could vaguely discern human anatomy from the Minitel’s “adults only” graphics.
Minitel’s mid-life crisis arrived in 1997, when the system peaked at more than nine million terminals. Half of France used them, and the value of transactions matched that of all U.S. electronic commerce. Its tendrils reached so deep that the French showed scant interest in the budding Internet. Many saw little point in buying expensive new PCs and signing up with service providers to access content that was not only less secure but rarely French. “Today a baker in Aubervilliers knows perfectly how to check his bank account on the Minitel,” sniffed President Jacques Chirac. “Can the same be said of the baker in New York?”
Other voices recognized the antiquated terminals were now stifling French innovation. “Minitel is more expensive than the Internet, more crude and too French,” lamented Le Monde. It was also painfully slow. As if by official decree, the Minitel’s decline commenced. In its waning years, its user base halved annually and services dwindled; most of the 400,000 terminals remaining in service this year were operated by elderly Luddites. Bowing to the inevitable, France Telecom killed Minitel on June 30. A couple thousand of its services can still be accessed—quelle horreur—via the Internet.