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Sunday 6 May 2007

Arrogant Americans, pioneering French

Minitel 1. Built 1982

Minitel 1 terminal. Built 1982 and still going strong
Where else but the United States would you ever see a headline like this? — Et Voilà, la Vidéo! — So it turns out they have the Internet in France!


And this is the New York Times ...

Great to see fellow Americans taking this columnist to task — in many ways Europeans are way ahead of America, digitally.

And the Minitel in France in particular shows just how ahead, it's estimated to have 16 million regular users and is now available over the Internet.

Since its early days in the 1980s, people could
  • make online purchases,
  • make train reservations,
  • check stock prices,
  • search the telephone directory, and
  • chat
    in a similar way to that now made possible by the Internet.
Although a similar UK service enjoyed some early success, changes to the way it was charged that were made by the post-privatised British Telecom, as well as the universal availability of the free teletext service, saw its complete demise.

Lots of other countries tried as well — all failed.

As with early considerations on possible consumer usage of the Internet, two crucial uses were initially underestimated:
  • personal messaging, and
  • porn services and erotic message boards (messageries roses). Indeed, these are said to have accounted for the majority of traffic.

The development of Minitel spawned the creation of many start-up companies in a manner similar to the later dot-com bubble of Internet-related companies.

"More than 90 percent of our business comes through the Minitel, which was something I never originally expected. But we sometimes forget how deeply rooted the Minitel is in our daily lives in France. It might not be big on graphics or multimedia, but it’s quick, easy to use and people trust it completely for financial transactions."
David Israel, founder and CEO of real estate portal Immopratique, which offers access to its property database through both the Internet and Minitel.

France Télécom charges Minitel users at rates of up to € 1 a minute on their monthly telephone bill. The rates depend on the service called; most services are far cheaper than the maximum. It then pays back part of the sum to the companies that operate Minitel servers.

In the late 1990s, Minitel connections were stable at 100 million a month plus 150 million online directory inquiries, in spite of growing Internet use.

In 2005, the most popular Minitel application was Teleroute, the online real-time freight exchange, which accounted for nearly 60% of Minitel usage.

Minitel was often considered as an impediment for a fast deployment of the Internet in France, since it already provided safe and easy online access for many useful services without requiring a personal computer.

Indeed, it still has many advantages over the Internet:

  • it does not require subscribing to a service,
  • buying and maintaining a costly personal computer, and
  • there are fewer security issues with respect to credit card payments and other personal information.

Also, because Minitels follow well-defined standards,

  • there are hardly any compatibility problems, which are commonplace with Internet services.

On the other hand, some argue that thanks to the Minitel, the French are used to doing transactions online, and will embrace the Internet as it offers more value and convenience than the Minitel.

The use of the Internet during the Presidential Election certainly suggest the French have been culturally well-prepped — thanks to the Minitel.

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