Wait A Minitel, Did The French Invent The Internet?

France is known for many things; fine wine, the Eiffel Tower, the Tour de France, the Louvre, Victor Hugo, just to name a few.  There is one bit of French history you may know little about, that being the impact brought on by a product called the Minitel.  Yep, the Minitel was a wonky, awkward looking machine known as the “Little French Box” which resembled the old Commodore 64, if you remember that relic?   This machine enabled the French public to electronically check the weather, book a holiday, monitor their bank accounts view share prices and horoscopes nearly a decade before any other country was able to.  Sounds a lot like a computer hooked up the the internet.  It is….well kinda.  The Minitel could be considered a very ‘rough draft’ for the Macbook Pro,  Check it out: Minitel rose

The Minitel is the first widely available screen-keyboard combination used in any country.  Its original intended use was as a ‘yellow pages’ where businesses could post their contact information to, in an electronic format.  It didn’t take long for the public to realize that the Minitel would be so much more than an electronic Yellow Pages.  The French Governmental Communications Company, France Telecom came up with a system available for consumer use in 1982, which is light years (in technology progression) before the likes of Yahoo and Google.  By the 1990’s, nearly every French citizen owned a Minitel, with a great portion of them being provided by the French Government.


The Minitel’s most popular use:

Left to the perverted human mind, the popular version aptly named the Minitel Rose, enabled a platform which would eventually allow users to form adult chatrooms.  The use of these chatrooms spread like wild-fire, people quickly discovered they could send steamy messages anonomously by using alter egos and pseudonyms.  The Minitel Rose was an instant hit, chatrooms became Frances’ new favorite pastime and  ‘Cybersex’ was given its place in this new online phenomenon.  So, I guess we owe it to the French for introducing the idea of AOL chatrooms to the world, and perhaps in a way, the blueprints for Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter.

But Minitel, compared to its future competition-the World Wide Web, had many limitations. The terminals were not computers, so they were not able to analyze data or store information. They could not randomly “search” the network. They could only call up addresses of the 25,000 or so subscribers affiliated with the system.  Access on the network was pay-as-you-go, or by subscription only.   France tried to market Minitel around the world but failed to get big international takers, and their timing couldn’t have been worse…The fascination with the World Wide Web, was just gaining steam.  So as a result, the Minitel took a back seat and ultimately,  it was overtaken in the late 1990s by the World Wide Web.  However, there are still Minitel’s in use today, those elderly citizens who don’t like, or can’t use a PC still have a an affinity for this ‘prehistoric Macbook Pro’.

My Take:

Since Minitel was distributed free of charge by the then, state-owned France Telecom, meant that even the poorest of households owned a set, which I’ll agree is a good thing!  However, being that the funding for all these ‘free’ Minitel sets were subsidized by the taxpayer, it may have caused the public to demand the government take a look at whether or not the benefits outweighed the costs.  This could have led to its demise.  Also, as a product of the French government, I’ll bet it lacked input and creativity from the free market (case in point… it’s design barely changed over the life of the product.)  Then you have the cost of production, and France Telecom likely paid more for materials and labor to produce all these sets, than any private, for-profit company would have.  Remember, individuals with their unrestrained entrepreneural creativity and determination, will be far more productive than any governmental agency.  Perhaps, Minitel’s eventual extinction was due to the fact that it was unable to compete with the spontaneous order of competition of Silicon Valley, as a result, a product with so much promise ended up being kind of a joke.

What are your thoughts on why the Minitel, did the French invent the internet? and for all intents and purposes, became extinct?



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