I was absolutely astonished to read in the papers that France Telecom is to “turn off” Minitel. This amazement came from the fact that the ancient system is still working!
For those that have never heard of it Minitel is the French designed forerunner to the World Wide Web.
I came across it 20 years or so ago in a place called Nontron in the Dordogne region. I was camping with a boyfriend and we visited some French friends. The rugby World Cup was on TV and one of the friends was using this strange retro looking little computer box type thing to get the results.
It was created in 1978, a long time before the internet, by France Telecom and was absolutely at the top of cutting edge design in its day. Nine million sets were in use at one time and users in France could check the news, search phone directories, check their horoscopes and bank accounts and buy train tickets and chat online – at its peak there were some 25,000 services available through Minitel. One of the other big things that Minitel offered was online sex chats. Known by those in the know as “Minitel Rose” – the world’s first electronic cybersex was initiated on this clunky old service and it spawned a multimillion Franc/Euro industry.
French singer Michel Polnareff had a big hit in France with “Goodbye Marylou” his ode to a faceless romance at the touch of his fingers on a keyboard in the night. In 2007 he performed it at the Champs de Mars, Paris at the request of the President of France!
A decade before the rest of the world, the French prided themselves on this technological breakthrough. But it never took off anywhere else except France. Incredibly there were some 400,000 users still accessing services through Minitel until 2012. But with minimal spending and no hope of ever truly competing with the internet France echoed to the sound of sighing Geeks when the plug is pulled on 30 June 2012…