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France Telecom to Shut Down a Beloved Precursor of the Web

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Updated 1:55 pm. Minitel

For decades the little gray terminal was a staple in million of French homes. Users could log on and send emails, find information, do their banking, chat, purchase tickets online–and, yes, access “adult only” services.

Some had been on the service since 1982—more than ten years before the World Wide Web began to take the world by storm.

But Minitel, the network that put France at the forefront of the IT revolution, is slated to go dark. According to Le Monde, a spokesperson for Orange, the France Telecom subsidiary that has been managing the network, said that the service will shut down at the end of June 2012.  “Even though Minitel still sells,” the spokesperson said, “its usage and traffic are falling. It is heading for its natural death.”

Minitel worked through small, custom terminals that were leased to the users, initially for free, and connected via the telephone line. Usage however was billed by the minute.

“It was quite exciting,” recalls Julien Basch, a Paris-born computer scientist who was a Minitel user in the 1980s and now works at Google in Boston. “You could order frozen food [online] and have it delivered.”

According to Wikipedia, the most popular service available through Minitel was the white pages; companies could add to their entry a sort of “prehistoric” Web page. With its rudimentary graphics, though, Minitel was never particularly good for multimedia.

After all, when Minitel became available, technical innovations such as the JPEG and MP3 data compression standards—which made it feasible to download digital images and sounds quickly—did not even exist yet. Still, even after the Web came along many French consumers relished Minitel’s spartan but reliable look, and its presence may have slowed down the adoption of Internet service in the country.

But most of all, Basch points out, Minitel lacked a defining characteristic of the Web: the hyperlink. “You either need those or you need a search engine. Otherwise you can only rely on ads” to find out what services or information are available. “You couldn’t be on one page on a server and immediately switch to another one on another server.”

Again according to Wikipedia, following the introduction of Minitel similar services have tried to emulate it in several European countries and even in the U.S., but none of those has ever reached the popularity of the French service, which in 1999—a full half decade after the widespread introduction of Internet service—counted 9 million terminals and 25 million users.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

About the Author: Davide Castelvecchi is a freelance science writer based in Rome and a contributing editor for Scientific American magazine. Follow on Twitter @dcastelvecchi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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