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Minitel – The Rise and Fall of a National Tech Treasure [video] (youtube.com)
66 points by bane on Jan 30, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments



We were running a multi-user text adventure on Prestel at the time, and BT wanted to put it Minitel (in a lot of ways, Minitel was Prestel done right - at least technically). Cue some days in Paris running around with a 'portable' Panasonic PC that must've weighed 25lbs; 4.77MHz, orange plasma screen and 2 ISA slots, one of which was used to hold the full-length X25 card used to connect to Minitel. I got a lot out of that visit (mostly increased upper-body strength).


Looking at your HN username, I am guessing you are referring to Shades? Hello there, Arch-Wiz! ;)

I lost 1000s of hours playing Prestel Shades... endlessly typing 'ret ls' at everyone and everything... ah those were the days.

Hmm, I think I still owe my father a ton of money for all those MASSIVE phone bills!


Heh

When I worked in the TEC tymnet engineering centre we had an ex phone phreak who had got done by BT security for hacking Prestel.

One day the SD officer who arrested him bumped into him and freaked and demanded he be sacked - senior mangers told SD to piss off.


That'd be 'coder' to you, Sir!

Sorry about the bills - I always felt bad about them.


Ah yeah, 'Hazeii the Coder' - I'm old, my memory is not what it was!

Do you have anything to do with the Shades that runs at games.world.co.uk ?


Yes, Perialaga hosts it and I look in from time to time. Write a message on the chattrack if you make it back there!


Ah that would explain the mintel terminal I found at tymnet house at hemel for my odd terminal collection :-)

I used to work on billing for TG and latterly Prestel

80:BTG174 (Neuromancer on the NB) and I think I was Mouser on Shades


Your persona is almostly certainly still in there (unless you were naughty enough to get blotted).

The Telecom Gold gateway was way better than the Prestel one; more gome users on the Prestel (Micronet) side though.

What killed both Prestel - and the BT interest in Minitel - was the bad press they were getting for their premium rate business. So BT decided to 'de-emphasise' all the non-core business by treating the paying customers like sh!t; sort of bounced off the Shades players though, so eventually they did have to just shut it all down.


NB 'mouser' is still in the file; not giving too much away if I say you don't seem to have logged in this millennium :)


The irony is even stronger if you consider that Louis Pouzin was a strong inspirator of packet based communications (having just done the cyclades network system) and TCP/IP but for some reason the French national telecom agency didn't believe in it and stuck with a different protocol for too long.


My understanding is that telecom in general balked at packet switching. To them it violated the core tenent of their business, that of maintaining a continous circuit between customers.


FWIW, my engineering school's IT team still has Minitels in use in their various server rooms, because it can be used as serial console for a variety of devices (you know, just in case everything is broken and physical presence is required). The Retrocave Man should be able to do the same and enjoy our AZERTY keyboard.


https://imgur.com/a/R6pFi

Yep, the adapter is easy to build. The minitel character set also has some handy glyphs in it for graphics.


That's awesome! Do you have more information/documentation?


http://pila.fr/wordpress/?p=361 Sure, I used this guide.

http://millevaches.hydraule.org/info/minitel/specs/ Here is some information on the character codes too.


Just had a look in the library; I seem to have about half a dozen minitel manuals in there. Minitel terminal specs, "Specifications de la fonction decodage Videotex des Minitels" plus X25 stuff like "Specifications Techniques d'Utilisation du Reroutage TELETEL" and "Specifications Techniques d'Utilisation du Point d'Acess Videotex". Any use?


Those sound quite helpful. I'd love get a setup where I could talk to my minitel directly over its POTS line rather than having to enter the hotkey for serial terminal every time I power it on.


I built one of these adapters some time ago, you can find some information and useful resources here: https://chapelierfou.org/2016/06/a-minitel-as-a-linux-termin...


AZERTY really is a terrible layout though, I can't find anything it's good at, not even typing french. You can't write É, È or À on a standard AZERTY keyboard for instance. If you're programming you're going to have the alt-gr key pressed half the time but admittedly that's mainly because programming languages are qwerty-centric.

But hey, you can type 'µ' with a single unmodified keystroke!


On Linux, CAPS-LOCK + é produce É. Ithink it works on Mac OS too. Only windows doesn't handle it.

But I do agree, Azerty is not that good most of the time. Especially when it comes to programming.


> I think it works on Mac OS too

Indeed, same on Apple's "French" keyboard layout, unless you select the "French (numeric)" one, in which case caps lock produces numbers. Also, ` is a dead key, as is ^ and ¨, which works with caps too, but there's no dead key for acute accent (é).

Other bits of trivia:

On macOS, the numeric keypad (if any) is always num-lock'd.

The Apple "French" layouts are vastly different from the PC ones (also available as "French - PC"), relying on visual symbolism for extra glyphs which makes them (sort of) easier to remember:

    option-n is ~ (which turns out to be a dead key)
    option-l is ¬, option-t is †
    option-shift-l is |
    option-( is { and option-shift-( is [
    “smart” ‘quotes’ are on " and ' with option and option-shift
    there are ligatures too: shiftable æ œ fi on option-a o and g
    question and exclamation marks are reversed with option too: ! -> ¡ and ? -> ¿
    option-d is ∂ PARTIAL DIFFERENTIAL, option-shift-s is ∑, option-m is µ, option-f is ƒ
    now guess how you do: © ™ ®
    £ gives # when option'd (even though there's a dedicated @+# key)
    shift-- is underscore, option-- is en-dash, option-shift-- is em-dash
    similarly, there's also (grouped per physical key: no mod, shift, option, shift+option):
        < > ≤ ≥
        = + ≠ ±
        : / ÷ \


You can use the following link (in french) to be able to do it on Windows:

http://chrisbertrand.net/fr/articles/clavier_fr_esp_maj.html


I didn't know about the caps lock method (I always have it remapped to ctrl) but still, it's more like a workaround than a true solution IMO. Using caps lock to capitalize a word doesn't seem very pleasant: "Étant donné..."


È and À are actually easy to write: the grave accent ` is ALT GR + è, then type your letter.

Special thought for the ù letter, which has its own key even though it's only used in one French word 'où' (ok, we use this word fairly often, but still).


I learned something today. Thank you.


> You can't write É, È or À on a standard AZERTY keyboard for instance

That's a limitation on Windows (and macOS?). On Linux, CAPS LOCK + é = É ; etc.


> admittedly that's mainly because programming languages are qwerty-centric.

More like US layout centric.

EVen the humble unix CLI is a straight pain on anything but a US keyboard, as things like / now require a modifier key.

Funny thing is that There is a variant of the US layout with the right alt being alt-gr, allowing most languages that use latin script to be typed.


For those who are interesting in "Minitel revival", a guy did some great job recreating a Minitel server !

https://www.jelora.fr/post/2017/08/27/Serveur-Minitel.html


It's featured extensively in the video.


You're right. I just listen to the first 4 minutes and it remains me this wonderful post.


Minitel: what should have been a cautionary tale. Allowing "service providers" to charge money for every last little thing anyone does on a service results in, first a race to the bottom, as prices are compared. Second, a rush to ways to generate extra revenue through various irritating and scammy ways (the Yellow pages were full, and I do mean to the brim, of scams, same for the "porn" (mostly text or chat based, some very creative "graphical" stuff), ...). Then those scams become so pervasive that trust in the system is completely lost, which makes it useless. Three, rapid mass abandonment when even a lower quality "free" alternative becomes available (internet over slow modems, hell, even BBSes posed a serious challenge to minitel).

The thing people always forget to mention is that minitel was metered. Every second you spent on minitel was charged, with some part of that charge shared with the content provider. There were also content providers (ie. "webshops") that paid for the customers to be able to be on their site for free.

The reaction to increased scams ? Why France Telecom stared charging more, of course, making the scams worse ... and worse ... and worse. Then suddenly all was abandoned in 2003 or so, with only paid-for sites remaining (essentially web banking, and some stock broker type stuff that's similar but more complex than web banking).

Of course, the whole exercise was repeated with "value added services" on Cell phones in the late 90s and early 2000s (also charged by the "time spent online", and also filled to the brim with scams), and now again with android and iphone.


Hi, i disagree. A (dumb) terminal in each french house. For free ! in the 80's!

As we had one in every house, there was "online" services which were very popular. Like school registration and ordering. And nationwide yellow pages! 24/7 ! Without the need to get to the post office to check for the county directory, on opening hours .

It was also a wonderful tool to connect people in communities. There was different rate charge and the cheapest were very low. I remember spending nights and nights chatting. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/RTEL


Then, of course, there were the messageries roses (translated roughly as 'pink message areas' - adults only, of course!).


I used to work as a system's engineer for the biggest service provider of the minitel era, back in 1989+. MOST of the services were for professionals -- in fact the biggest by far for volume and revenue was a transport exchange for lorries...

There were a few 'pink services' (can't call that porn really, it was just chatbots with (sometimes!) real 'hostesses') as mentioned, but they were nowhere near the biggest. The biggest after the lorry service were sport services (Stade 2 etc during footy times or Tour de France) -- then .gov stuff and education (exam results).

I think for most people the 'pink services' were the ones that were advertised most, therefore there is a bias as to what was used and popular at the time, but from my point of view, it was nowhere near as popular as what people believe.

For the technically minded, we were running a (lot) of Pr1me computers running Primos -- in fact we were their primary customers before they died; we eventually moved on to HPUX on the very first PA-RISC that came out. The Pr1mes continued ticking along for a long while...


Ineresting I never new that BT's other online service Telecom Gold also used Pr1me's I think we where the largest non black user in the UK - I used to have root on all of them and super root on the billing systems.


The primary reason we used them was the pretty cool 'ring' LAN that was X25 based -- since everything else was X25/X29 (Transpac) it was a natural choice. Remember back then available ethernet was still coax.

And speaking of root -- on the Pr1me was also 'root' as a system engineer, and I remember fondly the day I messed up the parenthesis in a macro, and ran a tool that proceeded to memset() and erase the whole of the shared memory on the machine. That was about 30 people who all called.... the system's engineer (me!) to ask what was going on! Needless to say, it was blamed on a cosmic ray.

When we switched to HP it took quite a while to get the same level of performance with HP's own X25 hardware/software. It's also the one and only time I ever played with X25 socket() API.


I thought they were GEC's but might well have been Primes.

I do recall being in Baynard House one night and having a furious shift leader burst in and shout that he wasn't putting up with Shades overloading various mainframes around the country ("what, my little box?" :) ).

Although I never saw much backroom stuff on Minitel, from the outside it was pretty sweet compared to working with BT.


Prestel was GEC's GEC 4082's Telecom Gold Was Pr1mes I think all 750's

I should have really had a trip out to baynard to check it out as I was I suppose the dev-op on the Dialcom side working on the new Billing system.


What happened to the thousands of miscellaneous services that were at one point provided ?

What I mean to say is that minitel was in an incredible position to grow and be a massive platform, worth 3 digit billions of dollars, and instead traded this potential for charging for every second.

This pushed all the random services (granted, mostly chat, and forum like things) that were cool at one point off off it, and first onto BBS'es, then the internet came with some free server space included in virtually every internet package. A lot of these were initially let on the platform, then bled dry, and died.

But minitel, without a doubt, could instead have pushed those services, and could have made it easy and cheap to host one of them, a decade before the internet arrived and it would have spread like wildfire instead of the internet, sooner, faster and with a few upgrades maybe even better. Instead, it charged by the second, made maybe 100 million euros total profit and died without any evolution at all. Because of France Telecom's business practices, everything on it was bled dry and was always losing money. And FT is a monopolist, they just bleed their services dry, and when they die, no replacement is forthcoming. At least things like Amazon have the decency to still offer the service when they destroy their supplyers. FT, however, just destroys.

And it was all for nothing. Despite forcing these charges, it has (well, had, these days) a reputation in the financial industry for being a place where sometimes interesting companies become shady, then die. All killed in the name of France Telecom's business model, and nonexistent profits, just so it could do it's charge-by-the-second thing (perhaps you can notice that I'm not a fan of telcos). Just so all the "profit" could go to France Telecom and nobody else could maintain a living on it.

Minitel is the ultimate example of France Telecom's economic sabotage : a massive monopolist that just couldn't stomach other people profiting even a bit of their platform and ending up destroying the market it had a monopoly over, all because of management incompetence, intransigence and utter indifference. It's not just that they didn't see the opportunity, as that requires looking for opportunities in the first place : they just didn't care. FT management is a reward position you get when some important politician owes you a favor, which makes it a given that high level managers are utterly incompetent, because either they are incompetent, or they're not incompetent and are aware that it's a favor : their days are numbered before they start, so they bleed the position for all it's worth and spend their time elsewhere.


The company I worked for was filthy rich with Minitel. I don't know where you heard there wasn't money in it, but even with Transpac charges it was making a scary bundle for the operators... Of course there might have been an economy of scale in our case, but it was scary.

They were bringing Ruinart champagne /by the pallet/ for employees to enjoy. Basically you could throw a party any day (for anything! like "I've just got new shoes", and you had unlimited champagne. Remember that was in 1989 -- a LONG time before dot.com era and even a long time before the excess of the 90's. Also a long time before it became socially inadequate to be rather drunk at work (on champagne only, mind you).

The employee benefits were also incredible, even by banking standard. I think we had 8 or 9 weeks paid holidays, and anything you didn't take was... paid to you at the end of the year, on top of the bonus (which was also generous).

In other words, not exactly a company that was skimping...


Okay, and what happened to that company past, say, 1998-2000 ?


Went into service, eventually became Atos origin. I doubt any of the original benefits survived!


> made maybe 100 million euros total profit

In 1998, Minitel generated €832 million of revenue, of which €521 million was channelled by France Télécom to service providers.


Where there's brass, there's muck. I doubt it's even possible to create a system that's universally useful while not being susceptible to scams and all the other crappy bits of humanity.


Sure there is! It's actually pretty easy. Just send me the shipping costs by wire transfer and I'll post you a book that explains how.


The early days of European internet was similarly metered.

Very few nations had anything like the US system of local calls being free.

Only with the advent of DSL etc did flat fee net connections become "common".


But minitel was different, the charge depended on the site you were on, and to some extent the charge was shared with the site.

All sites on minitel were like premium-rate phone numbers, differently priced ones.


So something akin to BBSs with a central registry?


Something like the BBSes on premium numbers.


>Minitel: what should have been a cautionary tale. Allowing "service providers" to charge money for every last little thing anyone does on a service

Which reminds me, that's also one of the rules of Project Xanadu: http://xanadu.com.au/general/faq.html#2

I wonder if that had turned out the same way had it ever been completed (or shall I say whether it will turn out the same way if it's ever completed?)


yep that's why services that charged for every last thing didn't take off


I recently bought a Minitel (v2 I think). Any ideas about what to do with it? I'm thinking something with a Raspberry Pi.


Text search engine? (submit the query to $SEARCH_ENGINE, and display the results - or bonus points for using Gopher).

Shouldn't be hard to do 1200/75 on the Pi audio, even on the stock audio output.


If you like that video, you might enjoy this great book about Minitel:

https://www.amazon.com/Minitel-Welcome-Internet-Platform-Stu...

I have started to read it, but haven't made it all the way through. I love tech history and the book is great so far!


One of the "funny" thing with the minitel was it was originally designed to be a set of services. During the first experimentations at a city-scale, people used it to find old friends from school ect. Then it ended up with its traffic being mostly directed to erotic services (mostly online chats).

It would be interesting to compare the bandwidth percentage used at the time for those services, and the one from today with Internet.


Block graphics and text at 1200/75 baud - say 1 million people online and all busy typing, that's 75 x 1E6 x 8 upstream so it wouldn't trouble a single 1Gb ethernet link. Downstream would be 16 times that, so 10Gb would handle it all. Of course, in practice a lot of time the line would be idle so actually numbers would have been far less than that.

Prestel in the UK (very similar to Minitel, also 1200/75) ran on around 10 GEC 'mainframes', which I was 'privileged' to spent many hours around. Each mainframe ran at a whole 1MIP, amd there were seried ranks of disk and tape drives to accompany them.

Edit: Number formatting.


I think they were more interested in how the relative percentages of bandwidth usage by type (erotic versus other uses) compares to today's patterns. I'd hazard a guess that people have generally been equally interested in sex over the years. :) Although I do wonder what the gender demographic split was like back then online, again I'd hazard a guess at a greater proportion of males compared with today.


I strongly suspect the interactive (mostly adult) services were the bulk of the bandwidth; the rest of it was relatively short, infrequent and low-bandwidth sessions like looking up phone numbers, catalogue ordering or paying the odd bill. There's some info in the Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel#Finances) about usage and finance which quotes revenues of over $1bn p.a. in 1998.

I'd guess that while interest in sex hasn't changed, it does seem the bulk of bandwidth on Minitel went on online chat (erotic/flirting) - likely much more so as a proportion of the total than on the modern internet. I recall Paris (and the Metro in particular) at that time being plastered with (mostly-pink) adverts for 3615 chat services (the Minitel equivalent of a URL).


Speaking about erotic services it might be funny for Anglo-Saxons to know there was a (serious) dating service named 3615 CUM.

Of course they used the latin word "cum" that means "with" ...

They had giant advertising posters all over France, and I am sure quite a few English speaking visitors must had wondered about French mores :-)


I remember traveling through France and seeing these enormous billboards. It was not simply that the word CUM was emblazoned upon them but the imagery was quite "sexy". So yes it was quite surprising to see contrasting it to my rural Irish background...


as a kid I remember vividly two uses:

- online phone book - video games magazine services for news, tips and most importantly prize winning contest (with no luck)

we all knew about the online erotic chat (lots of public billboard with explicit enough colors to get the message across) but for some reason neither I nor my friends ever got interested in trying them. Oh maybe they were pay before use anyway... that would have interesting consequences when your parents review the phone bill afterwards.


I'm curious: are there any books or movies which feature use of Minitel?


I seem to recall Minitel was cracked, too, and used to spread spoof stock prices? Read about it in high school in the 90s but can't find anything about it on Google.


tech treasure? Seriously? Nostalgia aside, it was slow and expensive to use. Internet had no penetration in France at the time so a crappy solution that does things worse and made France late to pick up Internet afterwards hardly qualifies as a treasure in my book.


The Minitel service was rolled out 1978-1982, about a dozen years before widespread commercial adoption of Internet connections for consumers in any country. So the Internet penetration is not really relevant here.

Yes, existing legacy technology sometimes works so well that newer things have a hard time replacing it.


It should be added that it wasn't made technically irrelevant the minute internet appeared either, Minitel had a few things figured out (thanks to its centralized monolithic ways) that took internet a while to achieve. Most important of those due to centralisation, the service-tied-to-a-paying-number and several numbers for different price point; payment and authenticity were the norm. Selling stuff to every days common users was a normality, it was done without any security risk, and an impersonator pretending to be your bank or whatever would be much taken out by France Telecom.

Meanwhile we were still trying to convince people they could buy on the internet by the late 90's, and how to recognize which site is their official bank and which one is a scam.

PS: Xavier Niel (the CEO/founder of Free/Illiad) is well known for having made his money on paid minitel adult services.

We suffered late internet adoption because of the minitel, yes, but that's because the minitel had been so good for so long that it had become part of our normal life by then.


> Most important of those due to centralisation, the service-tied-to-a-paying-number and several numbers for different price point; payment and authenticity were the norm.

And service providers could do both IAP-style (pay-for-bundle) and ongoing-style (pay-for-stay), the latter being a great model for news services or story providers (serials and the like).




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