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Minitel: The Online World France Built Before the Web (2017) (ieee.org)
266 points by adrian_mrd on Jan 13, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 124 comments

If anything it was so far ahead of the early web that it hindered adoption of the WWW in France. It was incredibly good and rich, many services that could be used by non-technical people and had a built in monetization system for information providers. It took at least until 1996 before the web could compete and by that time France reluctantly started to let go of their beloved tiny terminals. It took until 2012 (!!) before it was finally decommissioned, but by then there really wasn't much left of it to be turned off.

I was inspired by the Minitel to start Esurance in 1997. The Minitel of course had porn (more Craigslist type "offerings" from real people) but also reservations, travel, and...INSURANCE! You are totally correct, it was so efficient that it delayed the adoption of the worldwide web. Of course France wanted something in FRENCH (!). As I was raising money in Europe for Esurance, the French executives would look down on me and say "we have the Minitel, we want nothing to do with your Internet" :-)

Not really. I worked for France Télécom's Wanadoo ISP division and the Minitel guys tried to sabotage us at every opportunity, including getting the head of our first division CEO Roger Courtois, but they did not manage to slow the progress, even though at the time they had $1B/year in revenues. The bigger hindrance was relatively low PC penetration compared to the UK, Netherlands or Germany.

Fun story: at the time TCP/IP did not ship standard with Windows, so we had to ship CD-ROMs with installers for WinSock, along with a browser (initially Netscape, then IE because it had much better provisioning tools, not because of Microsoft's dirty tricks though they certainly tried). My colleague who was responsible for this was clearly so traumatized he shortly later left the company and joined the Catholic priesthood...

> The bigger hindrance was relatively low PC penetration compared to the UK, Netherlands or Germany.

Wasn't that, in part, due to the fact that many people in France already had a Minitel at home?

It's only partly true, many people indeed have a Minitel at home, because it was free to have one (like it was free to have a landline phone). You only had to pay for the usage. And there was great services not yet available on WWW : find the train timetable, find the phone number of someone, chat with a (fake) sexy girl...

As for the PC penetration, there was many, but most of them where not ready for network usage : Commodore, Amstrad, Amiga, Thomson and first generation IBM-PC with MS-DOS. Only the last Amiga, Macintosh and IBM compatibles had the software to use a modem (Thomson had included a Minitel as dual bot in some of their computer instead).

There was no need for internet or to change the computer when WordPerfect, Multiplan and games still work perfectly. At the time, the pricey computer than you bought in the 80's was still good enough in the 90's...

I think than what had incite people to get a computer with modem is not WWW but email (with was not a Minitel feature). The real thing than Minitel hindred in France are Bulletin Board Systems. They where never really a thing in France.

For the curious, there are still a few unofficial Minitel services available : https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro-serveur_Minitel All you need is a Raspberry Pi and a modified Minitel...

> The real thing than Minitel hindred in France are Bulletin Board Systems. They where never really a thing in France.

As a Frenchman who spent most of my high school evenings on demoscene-oriented BBSes like A.C.E., Dune and Eden, I'll beg to differ and raise this : http://web.fdn.fr/~musical/bbsf.txt


I only heard of BBS twice in my youth, even if I was kind of a nerd, it was really a niche thing, wasn't it ? I wonder how BBS worked in those days.

not listed here but some guys owned old ATARI computers on which they implemented Minitel servers with a toll free phone number. Some were famous for their HP48 calculator community (and were in relationship with HP to organize HP Party) Most famous names were RTC ONE and PULSAR. They were really a pre-internet community with forum & chat. Crazy people at crazy times and exciting time in my life.

> You only had to pay for the usage

Worth noting there were free services too. The most notable was the white/yellow pages at number 11 (later 36 11), although it was only free for the first 3 minutes, but it usually didn't take that long to find what you wanted. Or if it did, you could just reset the connection.

If i remember well, you still had to pay for the phone call to the service, even if the service itself was "free".

IIRC, 11 was fully free, including the phone call. Edit: I think the vocal equivalent (where you had an actual person at the other end, that could even connect you to the number you were asking for, was free too)

I spent a good proportion of my youth using a modem on C64/C128 connecting to BBSs.

In pre-internet times the purpose of a PC was quite different from electronic communication, so I’d guess people ought to have them anyway… It’s a good question, though, why was that.

In those days doing things by computer wasn't ubiquitous anyway (due to expense, lack of social/peer pressure, and fewer people were trained to use computers). So it was still common to hand write formal letters so such like.

This meant that even those on older hardware like 8-bit micros with monospaced dot matrix printers were still at an advantage. So people often ran with older hardware for longer.

It wasn't really until a combination of PC gaming taking off (particularly with 3D games that consoles of the same era couldn't compete with) and the WWW that many Europeans started taking IBM-compatible machine upgrades seriously.

MS Windows 3.11 came with TCP/IP winsocks, MS Windows 3.1 didn't

but that was the same for all countries

I had the painful job of getting Windows running with netware ie IPX also with TCP/IP

> MS Windows 3.11 came with TCP/IP winsocks, MS Windows 3.1 didn't

Not really, Windows For Workgroups 3.11 offered an addon called Wolverine [0] but it wasn't even included by default AFAIK. Win95 is where TCP/IP support became normal for Windows.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_3.1x#Windows_for_Workg...

jeez my memory is playing up, I must have installed it by default whilst setting all the other crap up.

Like installing Office on 35+ disks

I remember those days, travelling with a Win 3.1 laptop and a PPP stack with Winsock.dll to use dial-up in various countries. And 1-1 direct text chat apps.

And it solved a problem I’d argue the internet hasn’t solved yet: how to charge users securely, easily and for small amounts. The way it did that is through your phone bill, since the minitel was using your phone line. No credit card number to enter (and be hacked), no credentials to enter. Of course it also meant kids had access to it…

Web Monetization, Coil.com, Interledger are trying to solve that same problem [1] but honestly It's doubtful it will work.

1 - I've written about this here https://atodorov.me/2021/03/07/please-support-web-monetizati... and it was widely, if mostly negatively, discussed on HN https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26375857

Yes and Paypal and Flattr and so many others tried the same thing before, it's nothing new and nothing interesting. If you've read the mostly negative comments on your thread, i don't need to explain again why that's a terrible idea :-)

Because the phone network can't be hacked, perhaps? Also in my views, that something cannot be monetized is a feature, not a bug: trying to monetize WWW/email is precisely what led to the horrors we know today of mass advertisement and surveillance.

> Because the phone network can't be hacked, perhaps?

No comment.

It is because it cannot be monetised that we have mass advertisements. Some websites would be viable economically without advertising if they could seaminglessly charge a modest amount to customers.

Advertisement is a form of monetization. Now the question is about what you mean with "viable economically". Operating a website is pretty cheap and many non-profits are happy to do it for you for free, for a free-price, or for a membership due (usually 5-20€/year).

If you're trying to get an income from operating a website (or any other creative activity for that matter) that's a different matter. That's what i was referring to with "monetization". I personally believe that we as a species would be better off if less energy was spent trying to monetize everything and more into providing actual services to actual people.

The first thing I did when we got a computer at home with a modem was... to login to the minitel with my computer via an emulator downloaded on the internet, because all the cool stuff was there !! Mostly french video game guides since I was 11 lol

Then, I'd ask the minitel site to send me by fax the doc I wanted to read and it would call me and print on fax via the same emulator lol

The next few months, EVERYTHING moved to the internet and this stopped being necessary, but it was kinda cool... and HORRIBLY expensive vs the internet.

> many services that could be used by non-technical people and had a built in monetization system for information providers

There's still a Minitel today: it's the Apple ecosystem.

Minitel demonstrated regular people were willing to buy services on a machine (phone, phone-like terminal, computer) and use it as part of their normal lives.

If you're familiar with french language, some people argued that most of the "Internet" we use today is in fact technically, politically and economically closer to the Minitel. I'm of course refering to Benjaming Bayart's "Internet Libre ou Minitel 2.0" conference from 2008 which gave birth to the non-profit ISP federation (FFDN).

Why singleout apple, when our lives are surrounded by digital subscriptions from a lot of other companies too? Office, Netflix, Youtube Premium, Spotify, Blackblaze etc, etc...

Because the Minitel was completely vertivally integrated.

The terminals, software it ran (as the "OS"), Network and billing were all handled by one entity. And only this entity could approve software for distribution. It was a completely centralized walled garden.

Office, Netflix, Youtube Premium, Spotify, Blackblaze can all run anywhere, and on platforms such as Windows are free to do their own distribution.

Because Apple has an ecosystem, whereas the others you mentioned live within someone else’s ecosystems.

I still think it's better for the average people. It's also frugal oriented. You won't have youtube or google maps but for simple searches or orders I think it was peak. Just give it a speed bump and you're good.

Zero eye candy, and 1KB pages. Imagine how fast those would load on today's hardware.

8 colors is plenty eye candy :)

all solar powered on an esp32 thingie

ESP32 is way too powerful compared to a Minitel. They had zero processing power and simply drew to the screen whatever was typed/received.

then it will host 128 virtual minitels to dispatch onto attiny85 oled displays

Actually it was similar in Germany with BTX. But also during the time where it was reasonably usable (~'96) it was way faster and cheaper than going on the Internet. BTX was shut down in 2007 though

I own two Minitels. I made a connector (https://pila.fr/wordpress/?p=361) that allows me to use one as a serial terminal and it works nicely with a Raspberry Pi/stty. I am in the process of writing my own firmware for the other one.

One of my Minitels acting as a terminal over a serial cable I made... displaying jgc.org via Lynx: https://imgur.com/a/ecmvfMj

It ran on V.23, which was 1200 bits/s down and 75 bits/s up, but could be reversed in case one wanted to upload / type stuff.

Once modems were widespread, it was a lot better to use Minitel emulators on a computer, as one could record and replay sessions after disconnection—a key aspect since most Minitel numbers were billed at premium rates, to allow services to be monetized.


I remember being nearly murdered by my parents after they received the phone bill via the (physical, paper-based in those days :-) ) mail. The minitel promptly was locked out of reach of the family's children ....

still, good days. They even had games!

36.15 ...

For context for "36.15": you would access Minitel services by typing a numeric code followed by a short textual name, the most common code being 3615.

Advertisements for Minitel services would say something like "Dial 3615 HOTSTUFF to meet a passionate lover". A lot of these services were adult chat, games, or extremely low-res porn, and it was easy to rack up a massive phone bill by connecting to them (you'd have to remember to disconnect, too!). Another very common use cases was phone book lookups.

Think of it as a physical terminal for a ncurses-style terminal app using a remote client, with the display updating line by line with a scanning cursor as you received data. There's an example of what that looked like in this short documentary about Minitel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlUmxUB9RhI&t=500s – every single page loaded line by line that way.

More precisely, the minitel would call 36 15, which would open a page on which you type the short textual name and press enter, which would then connect you to the service you want. And the terminal would tell you the cost per minute of the service.

A little too much of 3615 ZAZA perhaps?

hah I wish I could have. But... in hindsight ... no.

Teenage wet fantasies and all that :-)

Yeah my switch from minitel to internet was quick when my parents compared the bills lol.

At this point, Minitel has become kind of Rorschachtest for france, some see forward engineering, some see decline, some bureaucracy... What's great, is one can project almost anything on it.

(disclosure, i'm french)

Was it not all of those things? I mean it certainly took great engineering to build a such network, and at the same time placing all computing/resources in the center ensured its decline, an approach which is typical of french engineering from higher schools bureaucrats.

Notably a core plot device in the French Home Alone style film Deadly Games (aka Dial Code Santa).


The trailer is like a Bizarro world Home Alone https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096741/

Now I’m curious if the Home Alone screenwriter watched it.

John Hughes watched it at the festival of Cannes in 1989, after this article (in French): https://www.bfmtv.com/people/3615-code-pere-noel-le-film-fra...

This has always been a great business idea. Watch good foreign films and spin them into Americanized versions then pitch them to Hollywood.

Also I find it amusing that Home Alone in France is titled "Mom, I missed the plane"

> Watch good foreign films and spin them into Americanized versions

That's the entire history of Hollywood and american music industry. Those businesses who wouldn't like us to share made their fortunes on entirely borrowed things from other cultures. Many of the great revered american singers copied note-for-note traditional african songs, for example.

Intellectual property theft is a great business idea, you're right! Quite the condemnation of both social constructs :)

At least, René Manzor was eventually hired by Amblin.

WTF did I just watch O_O. And as a Brit I'm intimately familiar with much French cinema, but this was awesome. I have to watch this now.

In Italy, the same service was called Videotel[0] and the terminals were sold by the state-owned phone company, Sip. there was a model where the keyboard would slide out from under the CRT screen[1], and another model where the hinged keyboard would fold onto the screen (similar to a laptop keyboard, except in this case it's the keyboard that folds up, not the screen that folds down)[2].

I remember in my area some pubs had these, they were on the tables and you could use them while you were there, it was the first time in my life that I was chatting with someone on the other side of the globe. (I had tried visiting some of the popular BBS on my Amiga to look at cool stuff but had never actually exchanged messages with anyone online). It was cool because you could talk to perfect strangers but sometimes the discussion would go deep. I remember I was so excited about it and my friends were too. I think in the modern Internet we don't really have something like that.

[0] (Italian Wikipedia) - https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Videotel

[1] (picture) https://forum.telefonino.net/images_fotodb/pict001494862_7_1...

[2] (picture) https://i.ebayimg.com/00/z/3UcAAOSwT5RdB2AU/$_59.JPG

IRC chatrooms, PUBNIXes and forums are alive and well. Just because half the Internet has moved to Facebook/Discord and uploaded a profile picture doesn't mean you can't have profound pseudonymous communications with random people on the other side of the globe anymore.

Let's not forget that Minitel couldn't be as great as it was if not for its complete and utter centralization.

Sometimes having twenty slightly different services that are blocked from interoperating for the sake of some abstract notion of privacy isn't that great after all.

> for the sake of some abstract notion of privacy isn't that great after all.

For some this is not some abstract notion but a real worry. I am glad the internet started decentralised.

It was not, in fact, totally centralized. In the early 90s, my middle school had a server that you could phone into to get the weather (I don't quite remember if it was a full forecast or not, I think it was), and that server was managed by a Maths teacher and students who would enter the school ½h/1h earlier to grab the data and update the page. I guess you could say that was my first experience as what would later be called webmastering.

It was still centralized in the sense that you had to connect to a server because a Minitel had no computing and no storage (so no p2p). Benjamin Bayart's "Internet libre ou Minitel 2.0?" goes to great length to explain the consequences of that.

Minitel was probably subject to substantial government regulation, unlike the "tech" companies that dominate the web and overinfluence the internet. Minitel was probably funded at least in part through taxation.

Certainly, Minitel was not a secretive Silicon Valley-styled company with dual class shares or other entrenching governance structures, that allow for concentration of voting power in the hands of company insiders, through disproportionate allocation of voting rights among shareholders.

It seems the French do not have the same hatred of telecom that Amercians do.

Regardless of the public opinion toward telecom, it has historically been subject to far more regulation than so-called "tech" companies operating websites. Sadly, some of today's telecom companies try to emulate or piggyback on the privacy violating behaviour of "Big Tech".

Centralisation/decentralisation is an interesting debate, but if the issue is privacy then, IMO, one also needs to consider the question of regulation/deregulation.

Perhaps Minitel was an example of a regulated, government-supported public computer networking service that worked very well.

Silicon Valley and its charlatan ideology is a privacy disaster. It is probably a threat to the survival of democratic societies as we know them.

> It seems the French do not have the same hatred of telecom that Amercians do.

Oh yes we do. France Telecom back in the day wasn't all that bad, but the prices were crazy: copper is expensive but not so much that you should pay every month dozens of francs (before the euro, don't remember the exact number) without even paying for usage. But at least from what i remember tech support and intervention times were decent before the Internet, then came Wanadoo and then the privatization of France Télécom into Orange and now we have shitty service like everyone else.

I think 15 ff/ hour (about 2.5euros), if memory serves me well for a local call. Minitel was more expensive ( 3615 i think was typically closer to 15 euros/hour.

It was brutally expensive actually.

I should have used the past tense.


> abstract notion of privacy

What's abstract about it?

This reminds me of the Nortel Displayphone [1], a similar all-in-one computer with 1200bps modem and keyboard. By the time I got mine from a friend in ~1992 it was already way outclassed by PCs, but I loved the hardware integration and the alt-future it suggested. I used it to log into a few BBSes before getting bored with the slow speed and amber monochrome screen. If I'd been older & had one in the early/mid 80s I'm sure it would have been a big part of my life.

Related, in Santa Monica where I grew up we had one of the first municipally operated BBSes in the world called PEN [2][3] that was primarily accessible from the library and other public terminals. I remember it was pretty fascinating but something that was more for adults so I never really used it much.

One thing I loved about the BBS era (1980s to about ~1995) was that everything was distinctly local, due to long distance charges. It added a layer of meaning and rootedness to online activities thats impossible to recapture now.

[1] http://dunfield.classiccmp.org/disphone/index.htm

[2] https://web.archive.org/web/20160313225121/https://www.wired...

[3] See page 77: https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/11860/3290549...

Where do you live? Don't you think some folks from your neighborhood would appreciate some local services? A local goods exchange (craigslist-like), a local chatroom, and a local media library full of movies and documentaries? It makes even more sense if you can do it on LAN, which can be an incentive to develop your own local ISP (which you should do for other more serious political reasons anyway)... :-)

I think it's more that the cultural opportunity has passed for local-first digital experiences, where the world's affairs are far away and local affairs are close. Let alone the increasingly challenged defaultness of the physical world. We're way too connected for connection to be special anymore, unless we all decide to take a few steps back from the digital world.

Perhaps in other cultures and contexts (probably far smaller and tight-knit ones) it may be possible to build the kind of infrastructure to enhance civic spirit, but I fear in the US at least it'd devolve into Nextdoor-style neighbor gripes which are mostly indistinguishable from the arguments on any other fora.

In the 1989 song Goodbye Marylou, Michel Polnareff evokes sentimental relationships via Minitel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxGLcJgpcEg

I currently work for the person who helped start US Videotel and I still haven't scratched much of the surface about all of it with him. Everything about Minitel and US Videotel reminds me of what was depicted in seasons 2 and 3 of Halt and Catch Fire. I always wondered if Minitel was their inspiration for the Mutiny software.

To me Mutiny looks like Lucasfilm Habitat down to the UI and C64 platform. https://twitter.com/wwwploguecom/status/628896016381685760 http://www.fudco.com/chip/lessons.html

This reminds me of Microsoft Comic Chat, arguably the greatest contribution Microsoft made to computer science:


Ah, didn't know about that. The concepts seem to be very similar, though. In US Videotel at least, there was a community function in addition to the various other functions the system provided (stocks, weather, etc).

Thanks for the info!

I have fond memories of Minitel. I remember chatting with other kids on forums when I was about 10 years old. It was really the web before the web. The only issue was that it was incredibly expensive (except for a few services). But it was revolutionary in the sense that within a couple of years, almost every family had one and became connected.

Overall, it was a much faster adoption than internet: it wasn't until the smartphone that everybody was online, before that lots of families didn't have the mean or the skills to operate a computer. Not mentioning that Windows was such a mess. My father bought a PC which became so slow that he couldn't even use it anymore.

I remember chatting with non-kids as a kid ahaha and we'd go with my friends to meetup chats and just bullshit around. The internet exploded this ofc, and I suppose you've been to the Skyrock IRC web frontend in your youth, which was the seediest place for us at the time :D

My first computer, the Tandy/Radio Shack Color Computer, was a no-modem version of a VideoText terminal. Inspired by Minitel, the idea was that farmers would check in daily to track spot-market prices of agricultural commodities.

If this description is just noise, word salad... well. It didn't make much sense to farmers, either.

The Minitel was pretty nice. I saw one in 1989 on a trip to Paris.

An important fact hinted at below is: you got the bill as part of your monthly phone bill.

Probably the most common use, not all that interesting to us, was replacing 411 (remember that? I don't think that was the Information number in France.)

Besides porn, it also had online dating.

> it also had online dating.

In Brazil (São Paulo) we had a similar, Minitel-based, system. No online dating, but I met my first wife in a chatroom. It also had banking and you could transfer money to different banks with it. Initially I got an MSX computer with a modem (at that time the telco rented out the computer instead of a dedicated terminal for a ridiculously low fee), which was also useful for connecting to local BBSs.

Later on I gave the MSX back (should never have done that - it was an unremarkable computer, but a pretty good videogame) and added a V.23 modem to my Apple II+ clone. The system continued to evolve, started accepting 1200 and 2400 bps inbound connections (which made it more accessible, because V.23 modems were not easy to come by). Last time I used it was with Windows 95 and its terminal software.

Legend says the system ran on Multics on a Honeywell-Bull mainframe, making me an actual Multics user.

The number was 12. It was discontinued in the early 2000 IIRC. You would call, get a human operator and could make complex queries like get the number of somebody you knew the sound of the name (but not the exact way of writing it) in a town or around a specific area, and the operator would help you find the number.

Also in France, 15 is medical services, 17 is the police and 18 are the firefighters. By calling 112 anywhere in Europe you'll get an English speaking operator that can dispatch any emergency service.

The internet also was billed by the phone companies at first ! I suppose everywhere was the same but this was not like a surprising thing when we had only one telco company around 2000.

Some past related threads (if anyone's curious):

Minitel - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29004616 - Oct 2021 (2 comments)

Old School Minitel Laptop: 7 Steps (With Pictures) – Instructables - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28861842 - Oct 2021 (1 comment)

Minitel, the Open Network Before the Internet - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28794257 - Oct 2021 (3 comments)

The Rise and Fall of Minitel - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25507260 - Dec 2020 (23 comments)

Minitel: The Online World France Built Before the Web (2017) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24439744 - Sept 2020 (196 comments)

Log on Like It’s 1985: A Fragment of Minitel Returns - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18781820 - Dec 2018 (9 comments)

Minitel – The Rise and Fall of a National Tech Treasure [video] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16263093 - Jan 2018 (67 comments)

Minitel: The Online World France Built Before the Web - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15401405 - Oct 2017 (15 comments)

Minitel: The Online World France Built Before the Web - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14681561 - July 2017 (107 comments)

Minitel, the Open Network Before the Internet - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14577881 - June 2017 (53 comments)

Minitel, France's precursor to the Web, to go dark 30/6/12 - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4175141 - June 2012 (32 comments)

Minitel: The rise and fall of the France-wide web - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4170531 - June 2012 (21 comments)

How France fell out of love with Minitel - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4088360 - June 2012 (1 comment)

France's Minitel service in 1983: online banking, eshopping, and B2B - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2733106 - July 2011 (46 comments)

In Germany we had something similar called BTX that included online banking in 1981: https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/28/business/high-technology-...

And in UK we had Prestel, also ahead of its time but run by a telco and disrupted by the PC. I woz there, said the old Geezer

Yes Prestel was the same technology as minitel.

But the French bootstrapped the ecosystem by giving everyone who wanted it a free minitel instead of a printed directory which didn't happen in the UK, due to that Prestel never really took off.

I'd forgotten Prestel. Didn't Prestel have one of the first Internet gateways in the UK? I seem to cast my mind back to the early 90s and the few hundred of us on the Internet mostly had Prestel IPs.

Traveling through Paris in 1989 I met a guy who had a terminal at his place, and explained to me what a boon it was for gay guys to meet up with each other, socialize, and make friends. I have no doubt that gay men partly drove Minitel adoption (along with other technologies like group phone chat lines, dating apps, and so on).

Yes, we'd go to gay minitel sites as kids to giggle at their personals...

I remember back in the late 80s the SF BART stations used to have terminals for something similar to Minitel. It had crude color vector graphics and a menu based system. A little sluggish to since it was probably using modems. Mainly just BART and local information. I used to play with them while waiting for trains with my family.

this episode of command line heroes talks about the minitel (https://www.redhat.com/en/command-line-heroes/season-7/world)

Season 7 of the podcast is all about the first times of the web.

Teletext was popular in much of Europe, but the big difference to Minitel is that it was essentially broadcast only: you could browse pages, but not contribute to them. This obviously vastly limited its utility, since things like reservations and chat services were not possible.

Telextext was was very popular in Australia as well.

Was called Viatel.

See also Telidon, a Canadian technology that had similar goals to Minitel but saw only limited implementation:


Another one of these things that could have steered us all a different way, if only.

A friend showed me Minitel in 1994, and I was half-surprised, half-not-surprised that even on this entirely text-based system, there was still porn (or at least, "visual erotica"). Human nature, eh?

The so-called "Minitel Rose" (all the erotica chat services) services were a cash cow for France Telecom, bringing in billions every year.

Xavier Niel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xavier_Niel) started his empire with a sex oriented chat service.

Billions might be a little oversized.

It's close if you count it in francs, and include all services. This article [0] says that France Telecome gave 700 M FRF to the operators, which means that 1,050 M FRF were collected in 1986 alone.



According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel :

In 1998, Minitel generated €832 million ($1,121 million) of revenue, of which €521 million was channelled by France Télécom to service providers.

I remember being shown the minitel in the early 90s, and being AMAZED.

Hm. Seems like just another implementation of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Videotex to me. Which I didn't like that much because of the german https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bildschirmtext , which reminded me of the stuff you could get on TV, like this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletext

Maybe the french stuff was more useful in practice, the german always seemed scammy, somehow.

> Maybe the french stuff was more useful in practice

It was highly pushed by the national telco. The telco lent terminals for free so they were easily available, and there were tons of useful services, especially but not only from national companies: starting from the 80s you had stocks, online shopping, travel reservations, information services, message boards, databases[0], games, dating sites, ...

Monetisation / payment was integrated from the start, through the phone bill: just like premium-rate phone numbers, minitel had premium-rate services (both first and third party), so you could make money out of valuable services. It was nothing compared to the modern web (~25000 services and about $1bn revenue at its height), but for the mid-80s to mid-90s and out of a population of 60m it was quite massive.

[0] trying to get rid of phonebooks was a big reason for minitel in the first place

Remember, at the time the Telco was a government department in a country that firmly believes in industrial policy.

De Gaulle had neglected the country's phone network and it was in a piteous state by the 1960s. A popular comedy sketch, "Le 22 à Asnières" by Fernand Raynaud had the hapless protagonist trying to call number 22 at Asnières and it was such an ordeal he only managed to get connected by a telephone operator in New York...

During the 70s, specially under the technocratic president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the French government invested massively to catch up and for several years the Directorate-General of Telecommunications was the single largest government department by budget. They bet massively on digital switching and created huge telco gear vendors in Alcatel. Towards the end of the 70s that massive surge of investment had started to dwindle and the government was trying to figure out what could be the next wave to foster the telecommunications equipment industry, and Minitel was the answer.

It didn't export well. There was a trial in the US with US West, but it didn't pan out. My former boss Jean Lebrun was one of the key people on the electronic phone directory project, and at the time it was the largest real-time database in the world. It was essentially a distributed in-memory database build on 1980s computer technology, and as you can imagine very expensive. Fun story: Oracle tried to get them to evaluate their RDBMS for the project, and even gave them access to the source code, but it was found to be inadequate.

Very different. It was really a query/answer based system with built in monetization. You want to check credit of a company, find someone is an obscure directory, talk with some 1996 onlyFan chick? Minitel could do. Also, online MMORPG (check car crash).

The key difference is that every household in France was provided with a Minitel terminal, on the theory that this would be lower cost than printing phone books. So adoption was high.


Bunch of discussion a year or so ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24439744

I remember ads in Video Game magazine claiming you could get free video games. You would actually pay by dialing 1 Hour or so on a very expensive service.

Is there a place in France, probably a technical museum, where one can still try functional Minitel terminal? Or maybe an online "demo"?

http://3611.re/ to have a feel

And it's not even dummy data, I was able to look up relatives on it :o

Not many Jean Valjeans in there... :p

This is great! Fully functional and works (as in: is able to look up people and their numbers). Brings back old fond memories!

This was the only free service I think. More streamlined than pagesjaunes.fr for a long time

Read about this in Computer networking : a top down approach, fascinating story.

I’m surprised how little the histories of the web include the contribution of the French tech sector for DSL, the technology that made computer networks easy to expand to every house, and the general idea that the Internet could be a domestic technology. Until the late 80s, the Internet was a military and gradually academic tool, but even until the mid-90s, having an internet connection at home was quaint outside of France where accessing your official records, buying certain things online was a convenient reality. TCP/IP and Tier 1 networks were only one half of the story, and the far smaller, easier half: connecting every country is a matter of a few big projects; connecting everyone is something, that to this day, many still struggle with.

There’s an occasional mention of Cepremades as an inspiration for the Internet Protocol, some technicality about Alohanet, but never a history of why that should be in everyone’s living room, except a mysterious prescient and unhelpful AOL, their omnipresent CD, and nothing about the government-sponsored, centralised project to make cheap modulator-demodulator use long copper wires — something that proved both incredibly difficult and relevant.

> I’m surprised how little the histories of the web include the contribution of the French tech sector for DSL

Do you mean for digital technologies or for specifically DSL? As I remember up to 1996 there was no commercial DSL in France, but there were excellent ISDN coverage (with rate up to 128kbits/sec with two channels). However it was quite expensive and when DSL was commercialized in France, it was cheaper at the basic rate of 512Kbits/sec. ISDN commercialization started around 1988 in France. In 1996 the Network part of FT started to think how to open the network to higher bandwidth, and it was not so easy because the internal backbone was built on ATM as it was used by Minitel users. Some years later (2002?) with declining Minitel revenues, FT decided to give the priority to DSL, with an adequate IP backbone.

(Source: It's only from my memories, I was involved in Rennes' 1987 ISDN experiment, network organization in 96-98 and commercialization of ISDN and later DSL, in Brittany, from 1998 to 2002)

regarding ATM and DSL - A lot of setups in Europe apparently used PPPoA, not PPPoE, meaning your DSL line integrated easily with the ATM network on the backbone from my understanding.

Thanks, In France it started with PPPoA, yet quickly it moved to PPPoE (~1999). People indeed used PCs not minitels to connect to the new thing of the time (Internet). At the time there was a need to update PCs as most individual or family customers had Windows 98. My experience is that it added instabilities to PC with Win98 where if I remember correctly PPPoE worked out of the box with Win2K and WinXP (it's was a long time ago). Anyway most home PCs of the time where not to able to deal with the speed of ADSL. I remember that the owner of a restaurant in Rennes wanted us to pay them a new PC!

While PPPoE worked on WinXP, driver support when transitioning to XP was quite a big issue for some. I still remember hacking the inf files to get my modem work on it as an early adopter.

Well, you're right that the Minitel was more easily obtainable, but there WERE CompuServe, Prodigy, and other private services in the US before the Internet took off. Those had some pretty large subscriber bases; nothing like now, of course.

Protip: this is where we are at with Web3 right now.

People are excited because they can build, any state you see is not the end all be all, and can be changed... by you! It's also very lucrative, more than FAANG while using a simpler stack to deploy a product, so that will keep attracting builders and their networks.

To me, the Web and VOIP are two great examples of open, permissionless, decentralized plaforms totally disrupting centralized services of the day, and hugely boosting the cost and effectiveness of publishing and telecommunications.

And why I believe Web2 should have something like Wordpress to take on Big Tech.

And why I think Web3 should move past grift and peer to peer protocols, and to applications to holistivally serve entire communities. (https://intercoin.org/proposal.pdf)

PS: I have put my money where my mouth is and built exactly this, over 10 years with no VC funding, and it’s profitable. Qbix for Web2 and Intercoin for Web3 https://intercoin.org/overview.pdf

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