The Minitel, France’s forerunner of the Internet, is going to be shut down this year, the Journal says. It’s a sad moment.
To be sure, the Minitel seems ridiculous compared to the Internet: dumb terminals, monochrome screens, text-only.
And yet, the Minitel introduced an entire country to the benefits of a connected network. It spurred dozens of successful businesses. (Including many sex-related, this being France and a proto-Internet.) And the terminal was free! (Though access was very expensive.)
Today, unbelievably, Minitel is still profitable for France Telecom, with around 1 million terminals still in the wild. but the company is shutting it down anyway because it doesn’t want to maintain the network it runs on.
This Paris-based writer still fondly remembers looking up addresses and locations on the Minitel, and even looking up standardized test results. (By the time I was old enough to be interested in the sex services, I had graduated to the real Internet.) The Minitel’s weaknesses were also strengths: because it was text-only, what you looked for appeared on the page as soon as you hit enter, which is satisfying in a way today’s computing can’t accomplish; because everything was in a neat directory, you always found what you were looking for.
Some people blame the Minitel for delaying adoption of the Internet in France. Whatever.
Now France has the best and cheapest broadband this side of Korea, largely thanks to telecoms disruptor Free, founded by Minitel entrepreneur Xavier Niel.
France has amazing online entrepreneurs, startups and investors, many of whom cut their teeth on the Minitel. When I was 13 and starting a first mini-proto-business, I made sure it had a Minitel address as well as a web site. For that, I used the service iFrance, founded by Marc Simoncini, who went on to start Europe’s largest dating site and is now busy investing 100 million euros of his own money in startups.
It showed many what was possible. It still holds fond memories. And for that, I’ll miss it.
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