France says goodbye to Minitel

Innovation

This article was meant to go out on June 30th, but was delayed due to our servers being down.Read more about it here.
minitel
June 30th marked the end of an era here in France.  It was the day that Minitel permanently went off-line.  For those readers who are unfamiliar with Minitel (basically those outside of France) and its tremendous impact, here’s a bit of background.  Minitel was a French innovation that was clearly ahead of its time.  Conceived in the early 70s by the French government and launched in 1982, pretty much from the start it delivered services that mirrored many things we do on the internet today such as, phone directory search, online purchasing, chat, and purchasing train tickets.  France Telecom who ultimately ran the service, smartly provided the Minitel terminals free of charge to both businesses and consumers, which was pivotal in driving uptake of the service.  Consumers developed great affection for and loyalty to “their little french box” which they found convenient, easy to use, secure, and reliable.  On the commercial side of things, Minitel was a good example of an innovation that value creating, particularly in the sense that it provided a platform which various entrepreneurs, SMEs, larger companies, etc leveraged to create viable and highly lucrative service businesses. One of the most renowned Minitel success-stories was none other than Free’s founder, Xavier Niel who had some of his earliest ‘wins’ launching ‘adult’ services (read, sex chats) on Minitel Rose.

At the height of its popularity, France Telecom estimates that 9 million French households were equipped with a Minitel screen and there were 26k services available via Minitel.  Interestingly, even after the world firmly transitioned into the ‘internet age’, Minitel was still somewhat profitable and generating reasonable revenues (according to France Telecom, approximately €30million in 2010).  However in 2011, France Telecom announced that the “architecture underpinning Minitel had become obsolete” and that it’s essentially time to move on.

So, here’s to Minitel after a solid, 30 years of service.  Yes it did eventually come to the end of it’s life, but that’s a normal part of the product life cycle.  Also, its clear that there were some drawbacks, namely that Minitel never managed to get a foothold outside of France (apart from Belgium) and, as is often debated, it success was also a bit of a curse as its dominance likely contributed to France’s slower transition to the internet and other new technologies. However, there’s really no doubt that Minitel was an innovation that not only revolutionized how people access information, utilise services, and communicate with each other, but also was commercial success.
As I came to France in the 2000s and, alas, didn’t grow-up with Minitel, I unfortunately don’t have any poignant memories to share about my Minitel experience.  However, if you have some fun Minitel memories, do feel free to share them in the comments!

One Response

  1. Avatar
    Pierre Chapuis

    > “it success was also a bit of a curse as its dominance likely contributed to France’s slower transition to the internet and other new technologies”
    Yes. In the 70s there were two competing systems in France, Transpac (ie. Minitel, based on the X.25 standard) and Cyclades. Cyclades originated in academia and was very close to ARPANET (there were lots of exchanges between the two teams, and many important concepts in ARPANET and now Internet come from Cyclades). Sadly French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing listened to the Telecommunications lobbies and ended up cutting funding of the Cyclades project to prevent it from competing with Transpac.
    If you want to know more about this period, the French Corps’ role in society, the Plan Calcul era and lots of very interesting topics (and if you speak French…) you can read this very interesting book: http://nuvis.fr/vitrine/product.php?id_product=39 Required read for all those who want to understand why France has been basically unable to innovate on a large scale since the 70s.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.