Au revoir, Minitel

On Saturday, France will turn off Minitel. Unknown to most Americans, Minitel was ubiquitous in France. Launched in 1982 and based on Videotex, Minitel was end-user information system provided to almost every home and business in the country. From its beginning, Minitel users could send email, buy merchandise, make train reservations, trade stocks, search the white pages: in short, do everything that people use the Internet for today. The article quotes Valerie Schafer, co-author of a book on Minitel: “People forget that many of the ideas that helped form the internet were first of all tried out on Minitel. Think of the payment system, not so different from the Apple app-store. Think of the forums, the user-generated content. Many of today’s web entrepreneurs and thinkers cut their teeth on Minitel. The world did not begin with the internet.”

I first saw Minitel in 1991 while visiting a friend in Paris; she showed us all the things it could do. I remember exclaiming “You’ve had this for ten years already, and there’s one in every home in France?” Back in America, .edu domains still outnumbered .com, and home computers still used modems to dial into bulletin board systems. And what was on those BBSs? Mostly chat rooms, email and Usenet. We certainly couldn’t trade stocks or make plane reservations. Minitel was way ahead of its time.