Minitel (1979-2012): its past and our future

2012 is the year that Europe shuts down its proto-Internets. First, the BBC announced that teletex was getting the axe and today France is shutting down the Minitel x.25 network. These technologies, both started in the late 1970s, were ahead of their times and, in many ways, may still be.

Minitel is what the Internet would look like if it was designed by telcos and newspapers instead of anarchist graduate students.

Customers’ use metered by the minute by the network operator, with subscription fees passed back to content service providers. It was a network of pay-walls without piracy, amateur service operators[1], devices or applications unsanctioned by the telco operator. It was a very profitable model which many monied interests now lobby to impose upon the this Internet.

Thankfully, Minitel was relatively well-studied by scholars while it was in existence. As of September 2010, GoogleScholar had located +10,000 articles about Minitel, and WorldCat had indexed +95 theses and dissertations. Below is a brief history of Minitel extracted from my thesis (Postmodemism), which I sincerely hope will not be the last written about this fascinating research program.

1978-1980: ANTIPODE & Minitel

The early development of teletext in France has been somewhat obscured by a focus on the relative success of Minitel videotex in the mid-1980s. A 1978 report authored by Simon Nora and Alain Minc[2] is widely recognized as the impetus for the French research program, though research began much earlier. In 1977, French teletext using a national-standard ANTIPODE teletext/videotex protocol entered a testing phase and a “complete teletext public service” began broadcasting in May 1979. When French ANTIPODE and Canadian TELIDON researchers signed a knowledge exchange agreement in October 1979, the French had already begun marketing their technology in North America. By 1980 ANTIPODE technology was being used by CBS in Saint Louis, USA.

Minitel, the poster-child for videotex success, was announced in February of 1979 as a national electronic telephone directory. “Plans and Projection for the Electronic Directory Services”, presented to the Viewdata ‘80 conference by J.P. Maury, relates that “the S3 project was launched in 1978 so as to replace the consultation of microfiches by the inquiry of data base by means of display consoles”. The costs of updating paper phone directories, he explained, were “increasing more or less with the square of the number of subscribers”, and were no longer being offset by advertising income. In July 1980, France Télécom launched the first public residential trial of the Minitel videotex service, in Saint-Maio (ille-et-Vilaine). At Viewdata ‘80, Termens announced that the France Télécom intended to distribute (free of charge) 250,000 terminals to telephone subscribers in Ille et Vilaine Department by the end of 1981, with hopes to expand service to the whole country by 1992. At the same conference, the Director General of Marketing for SOPRITEL discussed the government corporation’s mandate to develop international markets for Minitel technology.

The early Minitel field trials

There is wide consensus that Minitel[2]was intended to be a replacement for telephone directories; it was hoped that electronic publication would save the PPT millions of Francs in publishing costs. This cost-cutting business interest in promoting adoption of the technology translated into aggressive distribution of free Minitel terminals. Telephone subscribers were offered a choice between a terminal and a printed telephone directory, reducing the cost of trying the technology to zero and super-charging the rate of diffusion. The success of Minitel, however, is owed to a more complicated process than simple institutional subsidies.

The form of the artifact – particularly the awkward keypad – betrays the engineering assumption that Minitel would be used for information retrieval (not input). Concerned that users would reject anything which resembled a microcomputer, designers and engineers packaged Minitel in a “telephonic disguise”. Andrew Feenberg discusses this paradox at some length in Between Reason and Experience: the telephonic packaging of Minitel terminals “invites communications applications not anticipated by the designers”.

Two applications – inter-user messaging and text chat – contributed to the acceptance of Minitel by consumers. Reportedly the result of unexpected user activity, these innovations have developed origin myths. One legend holds that, during the Saint-Maio (ille-et-Vilaine) MINTEL trial, a support technician implemented a ticketing system to provide customer support; users discovered how to send each other help tickets, thus inventing inter-user messaging similar to email. While no authoritative account of this event has been unearthed in the course of this research[3], it seems likely that this myth is a variant of the verified origins of real-time text chat on Minitel systems. In The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold relates a 1992 interview with Michel Landaret, who had been in charge of DerniŠres Nouvelles d’Alsace’s Minitel trial in Strasbourg:

“We were running an experiment with a very small number of users, to determine whether professional associations and institutions would use data banks. The DGT had not focused on Minitel’s communication functions. What happened with Grétel altered the users’ relationship to the service in a crucial way. We had only a few dozen users who called into the service. For research purposes, we monitored their usage. We could see how people new to the system could get confused and enter a series of ineffective commands. So we designed a system to communicate with those users by sending a message directly to their screen, and receive messages back from them, to help them learn how to use the system. One of our users just cracked that part of the system and used it to talk with friends. As soon as we found out what was happening, we made improvements on the service and made it a legitimate part of the system. They loved it.” (Landaret in Rheingold 1993, chapter 8)

The implementation of chat during the Strasbourg trial resulted in a doubling of user activity, as measured by the number of hours spent connected to the system, as compared to the Velizy trial, but institutional interests remained wedded to their original metaphor of a telephone directory. When Henri de Maublanc, an executive at France Telecom familiar with the Strasbourg trial, tried to explain to engineers that Minitel should be sold as a communications system, “they said I was crazy, it would never work, the entire idea is to deliver good information, not to deliver chat lines.” Because Minitel decentralized the provision of content and information services, however, companies soon began launching messagerie services (chat servers). Maublanc, who left France Telecom to launch such a service, related that “as soon as we opened communication services, they very quickly became the largest ones.” While end-users did use Minitel to retrieve information like phone numbers and train schedules, messagerie services (especially the “pink” sex-chat services) were so popular as to raise concerns about addiction, and eventually came to define the technology.

Minitel among the first to provide public access to the Internet

Minitel is often described as a distinct network set apart from the Internet, but it’s better understood as a subnet. From the early 1980s, the 3624 Teaser service, founded by Jean-Claude Michot et Jean-René Vidaud, ran a gateway which allowed minitel users to partake of USENET services, including email and newsgroups. By 1991, Teaser-France’s message-handling service had grown to 4000 servers and offered extra-Télétel distribution via dial-up modem and satellite transmission.

Minitel is dead! Long live Zombie Minitel!

Old technologies never die, we just stop talking about them.

When it was announced that the Télétel network would be shut down, many in the Anglophone tech-world expressed surprise that Minitel still existed at all. The shut-down of the network, however, doesn’t mean that the terminals will cease to exist; like payphones the artefacts will remain after the cables are cut.

Minitel has a long history of hacks from the mythical first chat discussed above to breaking modem speed locks and dropping to shell on commercial services (see Minitel: la fin d’une école de hack, translated). Hackers, as a subculture are prone to reuse/recycle/re-appropriate any technology and especially ones with which they have an emotional bond. Many collect obsolete technologies and keep them in use long after the institutional players have moved on. Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) still operate and FidoNet is still active. HAM radio operators still gab, DX, broadcast anolog video and developing new digital protocols. (The Commodore 64 is back in production?!?) So there’s really no good reason to expect that the sudden surplus of hundreds of thousands of Minitel terminals will pass to scrapyard without attracting the attention of hackers and retro-hobbyists. There’s some evidence that this is already happening.

This image comes from @kevindriscoll‘s Flickr photoset of a Minitel Hackathon, during which they got a Minitel terminal to run the TTytter Linux Twitter client. His Minitel Research Lab appears to show evidence of successful camera input to the videotex terminal and links to other hackers working on the same hardware. A 2011 post on Hack A Day discussed pafgadget’s bidouillage (“hack”) to get a Minitel terminal to control WinAmp (google translate from French, original URL). They probably won’t rebuild the Télétel packet-switched network, but the death of the centralized network may spur decentralized innovation; while piggybacking primordial technologies atop the latest platforms, they may develop something genuinely new.



[1] The operation of information services was regulated and restricted to commercial publishers (read: newspapers). There are anecdotal reports of Minitel terminals being used to access hobbyist BBSes outside the official network. Pierre Vandevenne is credited with opening the first Fidonet node in Belgium, which was frequented by French Minitel users. This comment discusses how the demonstration of an Osborne-CP/M RBBS (probably 1982-84) and diffusion of Hayes modems made it possible to develop Minitel services outside the Télétel network.

[2] Nora and Minc’s report became a national best-seller and coined the term “télématique”, which acquired richer nationalist connotations concerning France’s proper position in post-war technological globalism. See France enters the information age: A political history of minitel by Amy Fletcher (2010).

[3] The proper term for French videotex is Télétel. Minitel, the name of the terminals with which end-users connected to France Telecom’s TRANSPAC packet switching network, has come to refer the entire system.

[4] In fact, Rheingold states that “people had access to information but not person-to-person communications” during the 1981 Velizy trial, which followed the 1980 Saint-Maio trial.