France unplugs wizardly Minitel

By Catherine Field

The Minitel terminal helped keep the French up to date for three decades. Photo / Supplied
The Minitel terminal helped keep the French up to date for three decades. Photo / Supplied

It is as French as the baguette, as beloved as the TGV, and its versatility once made the world gasp in admiration.

Now, after three decades of loyal service, France's technological wonder has gone the way of the dodo. The Minitel, the text-only home-grown precursor of the internet that brought real-time banking, transport updates, the latest weather, ticket booking, sports results and sex chatlines into French homes, has been switched off.

Aficionados mourned the demise of the little brown plastic box by staging mock funerals in cafes and many poured out their nostalgia on social media sites.

Developed in the 1970s by the then state-owned monopoly France Telecom as an online directory to save paper, the Minitel was born at a time when France was the home of inspiring infrastructure projects. It was a golden era of industry that spanned the Concorde, the TGV high-speed train, the forest of skyscrapers that sprouted at Paris's La defence business district and the Ariane space rocket.

The Government funded the venture and then supported it by distributing the terminal free to every household as part of an upgrade of the telephone network. Users found a beige plastic cube with a flipdown, clunky keyboard and black-and-white screen about the size of a paperback. It was plugged into the phone socket, and used landlines to carry the data. Some services were free, others carried a small charge and some were expensive.

Today it is hard to imagine the revolution that was the Minitel.

In terms of ease of information, it was the equivalent of gaining access to electricity after gas lamps. People marvelled at how easy it made life.

Imagine: to find out what was on at the movies, no need to buy a listings magazine or phone the cinema - all the films were laid out there for you, at the press of a button. To find a long-lost friend, you no longer had to wade through the country's nearly 100 phone books: all you had to do was to consult the simple electronic directory on the Minitel. If you wanted to know tomorrow's weather, find a used car or talk sex with a stranger, it was all there.

At its peak in the mid-1990s, 25 million people were using 26,000 Minitel services. Each month there were two million connections, the most successful being the sex chatlines, the "Minitel Rose" (Pink Minitel), the forerunner of today's internet forums.

Tens of thousands of businesses sprung up. The Minitel phenomenon sprung up in songs, such as Goodbye Marilou, by Michel Polnareff.

Times were never better for France Telecom, which at the height of the craze reaped €1 billion ($1.5 billion) a year from connection fees. It tried to promote its precious offspring abroad, but along came the internet, which was free, open and flexible.

Even so, at least 800,000 terminals were in use when the system closed, and income from Minitel connections in 2011 was €30 million. Among its most loyal fans were farmers who admired the Minitel for its sturdy waterproof terminal and ease of exchanging information on cattle.

Today, we live in a world of instant internet access, Facebook, film downloads and text messaging, but it was Minitel that blazed the trail.

"We invented a lot of today's technology with the Minitel," said Jean-Paul Maury, former director of the Minitel project at France Telecom.

"The internet, all online networks, it all stemmed from the Minitel."

The wave of nostalgia for the Minitel was not just for geeks, though. Others mourned it as the end of an era when France had the smarts to spot a good idea and the confidence to develop it.

"The Minitel for many embodies the French spirit - the idea that you can be smarter and more imaginative than others and achieve miracles on a budget of three and a half francs," sociologist Patrice Duchemin told the Herald.

It is not quite the end for the little beige boxes. A recycling site in southwest France is turning the terminals into car bumpers and others will find their way into museums, artworks and attics, where they will linger for decades.

- NZ Herald

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