A couple of months back Britains were saying a little tearful nostalgic goodbye to Ceefax and now the French are doing so similarly to another cute, pre- internet age innovation, rendered dated by the ubiquity of the world wide web.
The French Minitel system was essentially a very basic computer that allowed users to access text-based data over phone lines. Hardly the height of technological innovation you might be thinking, but consider that when Minitel drew its last breath on Saturday it marked the end of exactly 30 years of circulation, then the picture starts to look a little different. Add to this that back then, in the age of Pac Man, the Commodore and impossibly short shorts, the French were using it to book holidays, apply for universities and even indulge in cyber sex, we might conclude that Minitel was decades ahead of its time; the forerunner of the modern internet.
Peculiarly, Minitel, much like eating frog’s legs or wearing berets while riding bicycles with a basket full of baguettes, didn’t catch on outside of France. It was launched briefly in Ireland in the 1990’s , but the Irish telecoms companies’ insistence on charging for the terminal (it was handed out free in France to all telephone subscribers) backfired, and it was withdrawn due to lack of interest.
It was however a huge hit in its homeland, in 1997 at the height of its popularity Minitel had over 25 million users. Jacques Chiraq ( the French president at the time) is quoted as saying that “A baker in Aubervilliers outside Paris could check their bank account on the Minitel, asking pointedly: "Can the same be said of a baker in New York?" It was not only popular, it was a source of French pride.
Pride though slowly turned to embarrassment as the world wide web started to accelerate past Minitel in the late 1990’s. In the light of the internet, Mintel’s beige terminals began to look clunkier, it’s features limited and archaic, and it was in danger of becoming a symbol of French technological backwardness – with telecom companies continuing to invest and promote it (instead of throwing full force behind the internet) well in to the nouighties. In fact as recently as 2009 there were over 10 million Minitel connections still in circulation.
How will it be remembered now it’s been put out to pasture though? Fondly, according to Valérie Schafer, co-author of the book Minitel: France's Digital Childhood. “Now it's the end of Minitel, we're discovering that the French have an attachment to it, as part of our industrial history... Despite everything, there's a nostalgia for an era when French developed new ideas, took risks on ideas that didn't just look to the US or outside models: a time when we wanted to invent our own voice."
At the moment those French voices are bidding the Minitel a fond ‘Au Revior’.