From leading edge to landfill (...or not) by Peter Judge
Most people outside France haven’t heard of Minitel - and that is a shame, because it was the world’s first big online service. It has been going for 30 years. And over the weekend, it was finally switched off.
In 1982, the French postal and telecoms service, PTT, launched an online information system, which was offered, with free terminals, to everyone in the country.
France had universal access to an interactive system in 1982. Compare that with what was going on elsewhere. 1982 was the year that the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) was standardised, and widespread Internet access was a decade away. The first IBM PC clones were appearing, hot on the heels of the IBM model, and within Apple there was civil war between the Lisa and the as-yet-unlaunched Macintosh. Oh yes, and in the UK, Sinclair Research launched the ZX81.
Minitel was offered to telephone subscribers as an alternative to a paper phone book. Users could look up phone numbers, reserve railway and airline tickets, check online services and databases, and use message boards.
The system used digital information sent over acoustic couplers (old fashioned modems), and the paid-for services could be expensive - especially as sex chat lines or “messageries roses” (pink pages) cost €1 per minute.
Pornographic text on Minitel pre-figured a lot of more recent debate, and the French government had a typical response. It expressed its disapproval by imposing a tax on online Minitel porn, thus profiting from the service.
At its peak, more than half the population used Minitel terminals, and in 1998, it made more than $1 billion. In 1999 25 million people used it, mostly sharing terminals of which the country had around 9 million.
In 2007, the Minitel service was still profitable, although it was clearly in decline faced with the competition of the Internet. In 2009, the owner, now called France Telecom, tried to close it down, but the user base won a reprieve, which was extended again last year.
Now, however, the number of terminals has declined to around 670,000, mostly used by elderly customers, who have refused to adapt to the services available on the Internet.
The plug has been pulled, and Minitel is no more.
But there is one green side in all this. The terminals will be collected. The plastic casings will be made into car bumpers (fenders), and the metals in the electronics will be reclaimed.
There is an inevitable path from leading-edge to landfill, and 1982’s other upstarts have mostly gone that way already.
Minitel has had a longer innings than most 1980s technologies, and it looks like the last remaining Minitel devices will live on in other devices, as have their materials are recycled.