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Book Report: Minitel, Welcome to the Internet

by asdf Sat Dec 28th, 2019 at 10:28:45 PM EST

I have been reading this book by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll about France's Minitel system, which is universally unknown to Americans. Europeans will know that it was a system with basic terminals installed in homes and kiosks and businesses that allowed digital communication and services comparable to what we now know as the Internet. It was operational from 1983 to 2007, peaking in 1993.

The book gives a high level overview of the technical architecture, but not much in the way of details. The focus is on the social aspects of the system: how it was used and the impact on society as a result.

Also there is quite a bit of discussion about the implications of having a centrally managed and government regulated communication platform as compared to the Internet's decentralized and lightly regulated setup. One wonders whether the Internet's freedom will be its downfall: a serious breach of a national banking system or voting system or infrastructure system may induce a government clampdown on the current free-for-all.

The book is one of a series of "platform studies" from The MIT Press. I would rate it as a 7/10 because of the missing technical detail.


Minitel was quite the topic of conversation in Silicon Valley during the early and mid 80s.  

As it turned out, Minitel is a good example of the risks of early adaptation in a limited market.  At launch all the parts required for the Internet were there but their technological capability weren't up to the task, e.g., the 70 baud upload speed, the cost of the parts were very expensive such as the $100,000 per gigabyte for long term storage, and so on.  But the real killer was the fact the market was limited to France meaning it never achieved the economy of scale of the Internet.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sun Dec 29th, 2019 at 04:38:31 PM EST
because insufficient demand for IP telecoms in EU "consumer" society. No demand, no market "growth"--financial dependency. Shure one could lay freedum barriers at the doors of "nationalized," monopolist, utility investment and regulatory hurdles. But that analysis would still require an alternative hypothesis informed by micro-economic behavioral data--heteroskedaistic modelling, for instance--describing unmet IP demand or comms modalities across EU. US Americans don't collect, have not collected, that information which problematizes utilitarian assumptions underlying free market profit motive. Surprise in US gov or frustration among its vocal tech representatives  by EU antitrust ITC enforcement ("push back") expresses little more than spite. EU gov's just not into US marketing success like US Americans. Cray, huh.

I see your Minitel and raise you a Compuserve. ...

by Cat on Sun Dec 29th, 2019 at 10:43:19 PM EST
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Probably the biggest use and most profit from any specific area for the internet is porn. That volume and profit for that topic is not to be expected on a government run network.

But Minitel could serve as an example of the benefits that could be derived today from a state owned and operated network. It could be secure for starters. Users should buy their own devices, but interface applications should be cheaply available. A network that is secure and relatively free from criminal activity would also be 'family friendly'. If a social application similar to FB were available and also state managed that could provide a much needed alternative to the present situation.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Dec 31st, 2019 at 06:57:27 AM EST
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I think there is a high probability of much more government intrusion into the US Internet. Right now it is a complete free-for-all, which has a bunch of obvious shortcomings.
by asdf on Tue Dec 31st, 2019 at 07:24:00 PM EST
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Minitel was designed and deployed by France Telecom (since then rebranded as Orange), then a monopoly telco, with pilot deployments starting in 1980. The initial idea was to provide an electronic phone book that would replace the paper white and yellow pages that were delivered every year to each phone subscriber: once you got a Minitel on a free loan, like my parents did, you no longer received the paper phone books.

The modem was based on the V.23 standard, which nobody else to my knowledge used anywhere else: 1200 bps download and only 75 bps upload. Yes, the Minitel was designed as a top down, read-only system, in a typical big telco vision.

Instead of the traditional ASCII character set, the Minitel used a semi-graphic symbols set following the Videotex standard. This allowed the Minitel to not only display text with accented characters, but also some relatively crude graphics (no HD at the time).

The real breakthrough happened with the "Kiosque" services, accessed through a premium number (generally 3615, which quickly became part of the French pop culture): the revenues were shared between France Telecom and the service operator, a profitable business model for both. Through the kiosque system, you could access a bunch of services, like booking a train or plane ticket, ordering items from the traditional French mail order catalog companies like La Redoute: My mom was already doing eCommmerce back in the mid-1980s; to her, this was faster than sending her order by mail.

As usual with new technologies, the most profitable side of the business had to do with sex: plenty of adult oriented bulletin boards, messaging, dating, etc... This was quite a flourishing business throughout the 1990s when the Internet eventually took over.

Paradoxically, the wide scale presence of the Minitel system in France may have slowed down the initial uptake of Internet access for residential users. Initially, the technocrats and French pols viewed the Internet with a lot of suspicion: an American invention with no identifiable revenue stream. Although well present at universities, research labs  and businesses, it was difficult and costly for an individual to get Internet access at home, until about the turn of the century. The newly appointed telco regulator started enforcing a policy of strong competition: plenty of ISPs appeared on the scene in the early aughts, most of them now gone or "consolidated" into the four main telcos now active on the French market.

by Bernard (bernard) on Tue Dec 31st, 2019 at 07:14:20 PM EST
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