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Online games, shopping, chat, theater reservations, banking, and education—amazingly, this was everyday life for many French in the 1980s, well ahead of the internet and World Wide Web. In 1978, state-owned France Telecom came out with the Minitel—a small, mushroom-colored computer terminal that had a screen, keyboard, and traditional connection to landline telephone wires (but no microprocessor). The French government gave a free terminal to every French Telecom subscriber, and in 1982 Minitel went national. At its peak in the mid-1990s, there were approximately 25 million people participating in any of the 26,000 online services the system offered. And, yes, that included online pornography services, known informally as “Minitel Rose.”
The technology behind Minitel was something called a videotext. It was not unique to France. Efforts at implementing versions of videotext were occurring in other places too, all with varying success, including Britain, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. What was unique about Minitel was the government’s enormous support—France Telecom claimed deploying Minitel would be cheaper than distributing printed phone books. It was a phenomenon well ahead of its time. There was even a service to order groceries online for same-day delivery. Minitel enabled the lines between ephemeral consumer need and physical fulfillment of that need to blur, well before industry giants such as Amazon came on the scene.
Minitel was finally shut down in 2012, its usage cannibalized by the internet, the World Wide Web, and mobile technology. At the end, Minitel’s die-hard users were cattle farmers exchanging information about their herds and doctors communicating patient information to the national health service.
Minitel was a source of national pride in France. One speculation as to why Minitel never became the global alpha dog of the online revolution is that it was not an open platform. Still, Minitel was a communal phenomenon that gave the world a glimpse of how a core technology could achieve huge economies of scale if it hit the sweet spot with the end user.
SEE ALSO E-Commerce (1995)
Woman in a French village using Minitel during the 1987 Paris-Dakar Rally.