In Memoriam Minitel

Tomorrow, they pull the plug. At long last, Minitel will finally be put out of its misery.

This box materialized France's Videotex service Teletel, arguably the world's most successful predecessor to the web. Imagine, in the early 80s, elder citizen in rural areas connecting every day to consult their bank accounts, to purchase train tickets, or to chat in (sometimes naughty) fora. Imagine, in the early 80s, a thriving online ecosystem full of editors, developers, service providers, online advertising agencies... The loser was the enduser, of course, who was charged heavily for every minute online. But down the road, the pedagogy of the market was done (complete with the strident sounds of dial-up connections).

Minitel turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for France. In the early 90s, the Minitel lobby managed to prevent the French government from investing in the internet because the business model was highly profitable for the operator (then the PTT monopoly, now France Telecom), as well as for the biggest service providers (fellow public owned companies like SNCF, the banks...). But internet laggard France would catch up once its ecosystem migrated to the web, rich of a long experience in online services. Heck. Even a short one did the trick for me: working for France's leader in online gaming back in 1993-94 bulletproofed me for the madness that followed. And because I experienced the last throes of the Minitel, I could tell why such media darlings as AOL or NTT DoCoMo's i-mode would eventually fail (the latter even benchmarked the Minitel's business model and proprietary system).

We frogs loved to hate this French-Franc-guzzling old timer, with its screen and keyboard stuck in the 80s, stubbornly squatting next to our cool new DECT phones.

Now we'll long for the quaint touch of Minitel's rectangular keys each time we visit the museum of ancient communications.

mot-bile 2012

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