Minitel is an interactive network in France consisting of millions of residential and business computer terminals that transmit and receive information exclusively through the country's national telephone system. The Minitel network, developed in 1978 and officially launched in 1982, performs many of the functions now available through the Internet. Minitel, however, began more than a decade before the Internet was available.
The Minitel network was originally proposed to give French residents universal access to an electronic telephone directory, to reduce the cost of paper telephone books, and to promote the nation's new telephone system run by the government communications agency, France Telecom.
To establish the Minitel network and to encourage families to subscribe to the upgraded telephone system, French households were offered a free terminal. The terminal, called "le Minitel," was a dumb terminal —it had no processing capabilities but used the telephone connection to dial up a central computer server, retrieve the desired information, and display it on the user's screen.
The free terminals immediately eliminated France Telecom's annual fee for producing and distributing costly paper telephone books. Historically, the delivery of paper telephone books had been routinely delayed for up to eighteen months. Therefore, even when they were new, the books were out of date and riddled with errors. In 1979 France Telecom calculated that the cost of distributing free electronic terminals would, by 1988, be cheaper than delivering free telephone books, which had required 20,000 metric tons (44 million pounds) of paper in 1979 and would have taken an estimated 100,000 metric tons (220 million pounds) by 1985. The potential savings moved the project forward.
The population, however, did not immediately warm to the idea. In 1980, as Minitel was being introduced, the public voiced distrust of the technology because they feared it might be shut down in a wartime situation. Members of Parliament were also wary of a potential monopoly by France Telecom; they moved to restrict a system that would allow the agency to become too powerful too quickly. Parliament also addressed fears of electronic competition with the paper industries by guaranteeing cooperation with newspapers and other media.
Despite early obstacles, Minitel was a success by 1984 and its capabilities were broadened beyond its original charter. In addition to providing information directories, Minitel became the nation's resource for sending messages, ordering merchandise, viewing store hours or train timetables, researching theater ticket prices, or playing games—even interactive games with people in distant locations. Interactive chat rooms featuring pseudonyms and a messaging system similar to e-mail were introduced. For residents without a home phone, Minitel kiosks were installed in public places, such as post offices.
Minitel continued to grow throughout the next 14 years, and in 1998, France Telecom counted 5.6 million terminals installed, from which 176 billion calls were made to Minitel. Most terminals (64 percent) were located in residences, followed by professional locations (25 percent), businesses (10 percent), and other locations (1 percent).
By 1999 the Minitel telephone directory was receiving 150 million calls a month with an additional 100 million calls to other sites. By then, nondirectory services included travel reservations, sports scores, bank account information, stock prices, administrative file access, weather forecasts, lottery results, TV schedules, classified ads, and mail order sales.
The Minitel terminal has evolved since its introduction. Early models featured a simple black and white screen. Subsequent models offered a sophisticated combination of telephone access and color computer graphics that included a telephone receiver and line. The Webphone, which France Telecom began testing in 1999, offers access to both the Internet and Minitel.
In the mid 1990s, the Minitel system was gradually made accessible from personal computers and the Internet itself. By the end of 1999, some 3 million Minitel emulators were being used on desktop computers. In 1999, of the 82 percent of Minitel users in France who also used the Internet, 14 percent had never used Minitel before the Internet was available.
Rather than replacing the original system, the Internet complements it, making the Minitel network more accessible and more popular than ever. Although the Internet is becoming increasingly widespread in France, Minitel is still the exclusive avenue for certain services and information, such as airline reservations, frozen food mail orders, and company financial profiles. Other operations, such as telephone directory scanning and train ticket reservations, are still comparatively faster using Minitel than the Internet.
One key difference between Minitel and the Internet is that Internet users can visit most sites free of charge. Minitel users, conversely, pay a fee every time they access a Minitel site. The entrepreneur or organization that sponsors the Minitel site collects part of the fee, called a payback, from France Telecom. Charges are calculated by the minute and billed directly to the user's telephone bill. Prices vary depending on the services accessed and range from a few cents to more than $1 (U.S. dollar) per minute.
Minitel sites are considered more secure than comparable Internet web sites because Minitel is a closed network. Many banks and reservation agencies, therefore, prefer to maintain a Minitel site as opposed to opening an Internet web site because of the increased security benefits and the opportunity for payback revenue.
see also Apple Computer, Inc.; Bell Labs; Intel Corporation; Internet; Microsoft Corporation; Xerox Corporation.
Ann McIver McHoes and Genevieve McHoes
Marchand, Marie. A French Success Story: The Minitel Saga, trans. Mark Murphy. Paris: Larousse 1988.