Ah Minitel.I always had a soft spot for this strange, pre-HTTP online service. It was kind of like the Internet, except for most of the things that make the Internet so compelling. And now it is finally going away.
To be honest, I didn’t realize it was still around so its continued existence was the only really surprising thing about this this news report. I never used Minitel much, but at one time I was very impressed by it. It provided an easy, cheap way to get online, sort of. Except the Minitel version of “online” is not what you are used to. You had to use one of the proprietary terminals or a clunky emulator. Services had to use very specific protocols and technology and run through France Telecom’s infrastructure and billing systems.
The determination of the French government to push it through was admirable. The terminals were available for free, and every post office had at least one lying around. To encourage usage, the phone company (yes, there was A single phone company back then) stopped publishing phone books, so Minitel was the best place to look up a phone number. For a time, France was the most Wired nation on earth due to Minitel.
But like so many early innovators, the early advantage became a millstone. "De remmende voorsprong is a Dutch expression that I have never found a good translation for,but it applies here. It literally means “the braking advantage” referring to something which provides an early benefit but eventually holds one back. Minitel is a great example of a remmende voorsrprong. With a large collection of services available on Minitel, many French companies hesitated initially to embrace the Web. Minitel had a good payment model built into it from the beginning (one of the reasons for the unexpected popularity of the racy Minitel Rose services.
By 2012, I could see very few signs of the existence of Minitel, and French companies have certainly shaken off their attachment to it. I can’t help but be wistful at its passing, however.