Adieu! France’s Minitel Goes Dark
France’s Minitel service ended its 34-year run today. Introduced in the pre-World Wide Web age, the Minitel presaged many services that eventually were delivered via the Internet including online banking, travel reservations, and porn.
At the height of its popularity in the 1990s, there were nine million terminals in use in France, serving roughly 25 million people (the population of France, at that time, was 60 million). As the service was shut down today, France Télécom estimated that there were still 600,000 in use.
The Minitel put France at the forefront of telecommunications when it was rolled out nationwide in the early 1980s (it started out as a trial in Brittany in 1978). In 1997, when the service was at its peak, its users were still way ahead of the curve, causing French president Jacques Chirac to boast: “Today a baker in Aubervilliers knows perfectly how to check his bank account on the Minitel. Can the same be said of the baker in New York?”
Subscribers to the Minitel service received a one-piece unit with a display, keyboard, and built-in modem. It supported downloads at 1200 bps and uplinked at 75 bps, speeds that were fast for the time and more than sufficient for a text-based service. Most of the terminals had an AZERTY keyboard, the layout used by most French speakers.
Minitel technically referred to the terminals while the network was known as Teletel, although that distinction is all but lost by now.
In the 1990s, there were as many as 26,000 different services available including chat, information services for news, weather, sports, and stocks, online commerce, telephone directory search, university applications, access to government information, and e-mail. Companies included “36 15” numerals in advertisements and the prefix had a similar meaning to the dot-com suffix today.
(Photo: Bernard Marti)