Minitel – The Rise & Fall of a National Tech Treasure

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Minitel – The Rise & Fall of a National Tech Treasure

Minitel – The Rise & Fall of a National Tech Treasure

*radio chatter in French* 1970s the government-run telephone company made a radical decision to overhaul the phone system in a kind of great leap to a new era of telecommunications At the center of this transformation was the minitel a small terminal that started out as a free electronic replacement for the telephone directory We’re in the process of totally rebuilding the way we communicate Hello cave-dwellers he’d be forgiven for not recognizing this petit beige box with its Strange Azerty keyboard and unfamiliar function keys along the top row here Well that is of course in unless you’re French because in France this guy is quite the icon This is a minitel, and it’s quite cute If you ask me with its nine inch CRT screen, and it’s all in one cheap plastic finish And there’s a reason for that cheap finish This model is a brand new one which I picked up on eBay And it’s in fully working order the CRT shines bright through the rear vents here And the cursor is crisp and clear ready to connect to services Services unfortunately which have been long forgotten? Overtaken by the new frontier of the world wide web in the 90s But that’s not to say he hasn’t got a story to tell and it’s an interesting one at that filled with government bureaucracy technical achievements and well Frenchness So join me as we explore the story of the mini tell Behold let’s take that you come on You didn’t need to understand French to get the gist of this 1986 commercial for everything the minitel has to offer It shows colorfully how you can do your shopping book cinema tickets perform banking functions or even book a holiday All these things Faites-le en Minitel (in a bad accent) do it in minitel l and do it in minitel the French did for a full 30 years from its national rollout and following initial trials in Brittany on the west coast of France The minitel service was conceived in the 1970s and a French president discard a star He was acting on a report entitled the computerization of society researchers Simon Nora and Alan mink concluded that with the right investment French society could ensure its technological Independence not to mention the urgent need to update a telephone network Considered to be the worst in the industrialized world they wanted to layer interactive services on top of the telephone network and access them with a terminal a Digital french revolution if you will to redress the balance of US produced telephones computers and software Found in every office a threat to national sovereignty and pride at least to some Hello, this is the story of a revolution the press tell revolution It wasn’t unique in its method similar video text services existed in other countries such as the UK’s presstel system from 1979 which peaked with just 90,000 users we and many other countries became largely content with the more primitive relatives and its one-way communication teletext But minitel that became something prestel could only have dreamed of amassing over 20,000 accessible services before Tim berners-lee had even conceived the use of hyperlinks to create the World Wide Web It in its peak with a reported 25,000 services you can think of a service as a website in modern terms, but let’s start from the beginning its 1982 We’ve collected our free minitel terminal now. How do we connect to the service? well first a few adaptations Are required the French power plug I can convert with a simple euro travel adapter, and this t-shaped telephone plug I’ll need to perform a temporary hack on in order to plug it into a UK phone socket the T socket is outdated but still widely used in France with the rj11 plug becoming the recommended and then required standard in 2003 and 2008 in the longer term I’ll properly crimp this, but it’s fine for now With a working cable we now need to dial into a mini tel server, and we do that using our telephone on the same line We down the server hang up the phone and let the terminal take over which has kept the line open What we’re connecting to is an amateur enthusiast server the details of which you can find on the website Jelora.FR which is also in the description It’s a single channel server meaning only one person can connect at a time Now all official minitel services were made inaccessible in June 2012, so this gives us a small flavor of what it was like albeit with a very limited number of services to choose from The guide here shows us the services available on the server and Of course chat seems like a great place to start to see who else might be using it So we type chat and our characters slowly appear as the terminal communicates in a half duplex transmission With a 1200 bit per second receive rate and 75 bit per second send rate. It’s also known as 1275 or more correctly V23 this allowed for a faster download rate for the time Once connected into chat with our name entered. We can see the chat history Surprisingly there have been connections and messages in recent days some from Jelora himself the owner of the server Will leave a message for him or anyone else who dowsing and check back tomorrow to see if we’ve had a reply I don’t particularly want to hang around for him on an international. Call rate Next around the demo service, which shows the directory inquiry screen users would have called up to find a telephone number It’s not interactive on this demo of course because that would require that entire phone book database in the back end We then get some random text all over the screen and our ungraciously disconnected I mean I’ve seen better demos in my time but It gives us a flavor of how this all works and looks Will make one last connection then and we’ll find out more about the server this time It tells us that it’s running Java on a Raspberry Pi 3 with the raspbian Linux distribution and the final line reads Designed and produced by gelora and on the next page. We get to see the great man himself in this gloriously pixelated image The text here reads an amateur guy who likes to tinker with a little bit of everything He’s even got his Twitter handle at the bottom of the screen here a piece of 1982 technology promoting Twitter glorious The demo of course is great ensuring us how the technology looked and felt And the speed operated at it’s a little different to the real-world Minitel. However on the real system You would dial the number for a pavi or pond access video text a video text access point We’ll call it a PAVI, the PAVI then acted as a gateway to the services available through it dialing numbers Generally range from three six one one upwards with premium rate services charged per minute on three six one five and higher You’d often see billboards or buses with Advertisements for such services showing the company name and a three six one five number to clearly indicate It was a Minitel service Directory assistance the phonebook was accessed on a three six one one number and you received three free minutes to perform your search With half of all mini tail calls going to three six one one this was by far the most popular service Another very popular service to access on minitel were adult chat lines the existence of which coupled with the cost per minute for access Prompted the introduction of terminals with pin numbers this was to prevent the unauthorized use by inquisitive teenagers The phrase pink Minitel was coined to refer to these risque services and Entrepreneurs made a fortune including one Xavier Neil who went on to become the CEO of free one of the largest? internet and mobile phone companies in France These adult chat services were confidential and anonymous however, there was a period of panic when it became known that the authorities were intercepting some of the lines to track criminal activity and It wasn’t just criminal activity taking place in 1986 a huge protest took place by French students much of which was Orchestrated using the mini tale system in much the same way students used social media today to organize such movements Ironically ten years later enrollment to university could only be achieved via the minitel system Now I didn’t have first-hand experience of using the mini Tao and certainly not in its prime I was over in the UK Dialing up BBS boards like the rest of the world, but I have some friends who do Nico and Bastian are over in France and they hate to share their experiences Hello Cave Dwellers My favorite use for the minitel was the phone directory It was really a really killer app. it was free and it was so much more convenient than having to use the phone book Which would only cover local area anyway, or having to call French directory assistance My favorite use of the minitel was to download public domain software at that sweet spot in the late 80s and early 90s when the per minute price of connecting was lower than connecting into BBS’s or the new world wide web and faster than ordering floppies Another service that I used was to order games and software you Could dial into a service that will send you software on cd-rom or floppies by snail mail and the cost would be completely covered by the phone fees so there was no credit card required. We also used it to check for exam results like the Baccalauréat (diploma) or to check on applications to universities to see if they were approved or not I remember the anticipation while the page was slowly loading and the next line would reveal if you passed your Baccalauréat (diploma) or not Another service that I really enjoy using was doing mail orders for my parents It saved a stamp, and I just liked typing things in And I remember as a kid maybe 12 13 years old we did use such a service with my brother to order an naughty movie shall we say on cd-rom and Being responsible big brother that I am I put it under my younger brother’s name of course My parents were a bit surprised to receive a package under his name a few days later and with those contents I’m still amazed to this day that we thought we could sneak that one past them I realized that the minitel was going to be overtaken by the web when I used the web to look up some information on a TV series I was interested in White Palms William Gibson cyber The Minitel was anything but cyber I don’t think I realized at the time that the minitel would be overtaken by the web a lot of services were still available via Minitel only so you would still use a minitel some things and the web for everything else then one day all services were migrated to the web and the Minitel was just collecting dust in the closet There has never been a better time to get online the easiest just got easier It’s the messages I can customize my email I need to sent me a picture if you have a phone line you can be online It’s the easiest way to keep up with all foods everyone. I know is on it You don’t need me to explain to you the impact of the world wide web it’s adoption evolution and increasingly fast access has allowed services to evolve from basic text and image websites to streaming video Services and beyond Minitel hadn’t exactly stood still with terminals being upgraded to have integrated handsets Detachable keyboards and even LCD displays, but the underlying technology of the service remained very much the same in 1997 France was acutely aware of the threat of the web to its Minitel service leonardo spar the French Prime Minister wanted to push for the nation to migrate from minitel to the Internet the risky said is that France could be left behind in the Information Age, but there was a problem Revenue and lots of it every user paid per minute to access the service while some services like banking directory enquiries or University enrollment would be on a lower rate number those three six one five services could cost one front twenty nine per minute About one u.s.. Dollar every three minutes This money would be split between France Telecom running the infrastructure and the operator of the server on which the service was hosted Potential that be money France Telecom and the mini tail market were making six billion francs in 1997 about one and a half billion US dollars allowing for inflation the motivation to move to an Internet service provider model with local cool rates and Neutral access to everything was not attractive to France Telecom The internet did of course become available and mini towel service providers created websites SNCF the National Train Network were making twenty million dollars a year in 1997 through mini towel So when they launched their web site They ensured you couldn’t actually make a booking for that you still needed to log on to mini towel And it was understandable when solutions to problems like payment security Hosting and visibility had been solved already Minitel was a mature service unlike the fledgling web combine this with the ease of use of your free mini towel terminal and you can understand also the Reluctance to change from both the user and the providers perspective At its peak in the 90s nine million mini tout terminals were in use by 2012 when the service was ceased 810 thousand terminals was still in use It has been said that minitel the very same pioneering system designed to impress technological independence on a nation to drive innovation and to connect a population in ways other nations could only dream of Had now become the cause of the slow rate of adoption of the internet within France But adopt they did and in June 2012 the mini tale services became history I Was sad when the Minitel ended it was an excellent French innovation it gave access to technology to a lot of people who wouldn’t have access to it, otherwise. It was a sad day when the minitel ended I’ve got fond memories of the service But it’s time had come and for a while at least France showed the world the advantages of Connected nation There is of course a lot more to the minitel story and there’s some fun that you can have with the terminals today primarily through this Perri informatique, port on the back a Serial port which I’m going to have some fun connecting to a Raspberry Pi and using this as a terminal if I can Look out for that in a future video But for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed the brief history of the mini tale and the way a country embraced enjoyed and reluctantly let go of a pioneering technology as Always, thank you for watching and take care Retro mancave is made possible Thanks to the support of the lovely patrons growing up the screen if you’d like to support the channel then pop over to patreon using The link in the description. Thanks as always for your views and for your support (and for reading the subtitles. Subtitles rock)

100 thoughts on Minitel – The Rise & Fall of a National Tech Treasure

  1. So what was your UK phone bill after that? (Also interesting to see you've still got a POTS line – they're going to be very slowly phased out in Australia)

  2. I've got, I think, seven Minitel capable terminals. Although most are UK spec, one was imported from France. Oh, and more straight Prestel terminals than I can shake a stick at. I really need to get my servers up and running again ….

  3. 10:25 – it irritates the hell out of me that video from the mid 1980's is being shown in black and white.

    There is literally an almost ZERO chance this was actually recorded in black and white in the mid 1980s. My grandfather in the 1940's recorded home films in color. Black and white photography was dead by 1970.

    So – why is this being shown in black and white? I imagine that in 2070, video from this date will be shown in black and white so everybody can know "it's old".

  4. I used a free loaner Minitel terminal from South Western Bell in 1989 to book airline tickets on Eassy Sabre. Minitel was tested market in the US but never got a tracking before internet. This brings back lots of old memory.

  5. Does the character base make it usable as a UNIX terminal?
    I can still use my 1984 Apple IIc as a UNIX terminal (and even wireless with a Raspberry Pi Zero connected to the serial port).

  6. I remember taking French language class in high school; we learned about this. It seemed like a pretty cool idea (I was going home and connecting my Amiga 500 to local BBS lines and CompuServe; so it wasn't that alien.) It was like a more centralized (and to be honest, less capable) service than I was getting at home. But MiniTel was more affordable.

  7. is the beginning of the video some part of a computer chronicles episode?? if yes what is the number of the episode?

  8. I remember it well being used by my parents and brothers in the 90s for all sorts of paperworks in public buildings. Not really meant for children so i never got the chance to type on this. But that's a nice reminiscence of a very advanced product of a nice bygone era ^^
    Nice video. Thanks from the other side of the Channel 😉

  9. Ne1 knows of a minitel/prestel/videotex server software? There are still many devices and software clients around, so it would be great to have a server with a number so people could connect to it!

  10. Google the word Formicapunk to read a webcomic created by Boulet, about an uchronic world where the minitel and other 80's technologies survived.

  11. Here in Italy seems like we had a similar system, the Videotel by SIP (the only national phone company at the time) but it worked differently by charging at first by page, and the cost of the page changed based on who made that page. Because this system was a bit of a scam, and basically those costs went to weight down over the SIP company, the phone company itself decided to switch to a by-minute pricing, but far too late.

    It wasn't really successful, same as like Italy never really got into Pagers, but went directly to cellular cervice like TACs

  12. very interesting! being from Mexico I had no idea this existed. this was a very fun video, although that minitel teardown bit at the end is probably the saddest thing ever… keep researching and posting great videos on retro tech, I'm a recent subscriber but quickly becoming a fan!

  13. Cool to see another fan of the Wild Palms miniseries. I found it in a Laserdisc box set a couple of years ago.

  14. While looking for a unit on eBay, I became aware that there are U.S. units with QWERTY keyboards (still manufactured in France by Alcatel) that were test marketed in the early 90's in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  15. I used to download games for my Amstrad CPC 6128 … using minitel services and a special cable to link both devices.

  16. I always had a soft spot for this tech. It's not well known, but a version of Minitel called Teledon was briefly trialled in Canada, supported by Bell Canada and units were rolled out to a number of libraries, and places like the Arts, Science and Technology centre (now Science World) in Vancouver. This was purely amazing to my 10 year old self, and luckily for me there was not only the interesting but not useful for a 10 year old's services but also a TON of games you could log into and play. Most were turn-based "Choose your own adventure" or gambling games but I remember one space-based strategy game like Oregon Trail in space which was amazing. So many ways to die from your hydroponic pant bays turning Day of the Triffids on you, or being sliced up by the lasers of a hostile alien spaceship (And these fast drawn and animated colourful graphics were beautiful then) and best of all, there were no fees charged per-minute or otherwise, so me and my smart proto-computer geek friends would get the connection code numbers for the games from the librarian and junkie out for hours on them. What a shame it never got past the trial stage here. The Teledon trial started up as far as I can recall in 1981 and ended a year later.

  17. this is amazing! I never knew something like this ever existed. The French did come up with very peculiar things but sadly most of them failed.

  18. Thoroughly enjoyed this. I was vaguely aware of the Minitel system, but never seen an in depth review of it. Really reminds me of the terminals in the recent Fallout games!

  19. There was some game download services available for amstrad CPC like amcharge kind of early steam !

  20. I worked in France during the late eighties and, among other things, uploaded sports-competition results on to club and regional bulletin boards. It really was a useful 'social network' system as well as the payment side of things which speeded up all sorts of travel bookings. 🙂

  21. A small reminder that Ireland offered a public Minitel service on similar lines (operated by then monopoly telco Telecom Eireann). The plug was pulled in 1992.

  22. This is interesting. These rudimentary systems before the internet as we know is like now with the internet going the way of blockchain an cryptos , what will we have in 10 to 15 years.

  23. I could not imagine so many different ways to mistype "Minitel" than it was done in the subtitles 😂

    but seriously: how can I correct them?

  24. The minitel had a high resolution mode ..You could send small blocks of images and display high resolution images .I remember using minitels as terminals for Unix systems .There was an OS called DOS386 .A multitask MSDOS like system .I would run several session on a PC ..This in the days of the very primitive PC computers

  25. Minitel as featured on the first episode of Sky news (30 years old today) – (see from 13:18)

  26. Wow. Great video of a piece of history. How far we've come. I grew up in the 80's and most everything was electronic but it was analog. Something like this in 1987 for me, would have been incredible.

  27. It's actually a full duplex connection. I've been involved at bit in the German version of it based on Bildschirmtext. Bildschirmtext is capable of more graphics so you actually have high resolution images. There is of course a Wikipedia gateway.

  28. I do believe I love the simplistic and direct, neutral competency. It reminds me a lot of that SUV y'all produced back in the eighties, the Talbot Matra Ranchero. Just nice and clean and direct. Bare bones necessity with just the right touches here and there to keep it from becoming actual bare bones. Long live the Empire and all it has given us. 👍🥃

  29. I miss my MiniTel from my time in Paris. I could book cabs (Taxis G7), theatre and train tickets, send messages. LOVED it.

    I was there working for Netscape in 1996-1998 and ironically we helped bring the internet to the masses which caused it to be quickly surpassed. ISDN lines were easily available and much faster data rates made internet access a no-brainer.

  30. Minitel was great… I used it till 1993/1994 before switching to the Internet.
    One advantage of the Minitel over the Internet was paradoxically that it was far more limited.
    Thus, the designers of the services had to go straight to the point. Services usually fitted on one unique page. You never had to fill absurdly long forms with unecessary fields, no pop-ups, no banners, etc…
    I think that most webdesigners should first try to create their websites as if they would be used through the Minitel. It would force them to think what is essential and drop the rest.

  31. In Canada we had the Alex (videotex service)
    Alex was the name of an interactive videotex information service offered by Bell Canada in market research from 1988 to 1990 and thence to the general public until 1994

  32. Minitel was a big deal back when I was a kid. But it's also one of the reasons France was a little left behind on Internet services during the first years : when telecommunications were a public service, Internet was seen by politics as a competitor to our local, very french, technology. We had to wait until 2000 / 2001 to have the first true broadband connection and until that, we were pretty much stuck with slow, unreliable and expensive analog phone connections over traditionnal modems. Fortunately, things have pretty much changed since then. all of this is a bit nostalgic, but truly, it was a pain in the ass … ^_^

  33. BBS boards?
    No, we had closed captions getting in the way of BBS boards
    I was logging in on my Atari home computer to play muds, and post to local boards

  34. Only the French would invent a standalone terminal to run what was basically Teletext or Ceefax…two services in the UK that you could run on your TV with a remote control free of charge….

  35. Was it possible to connect a serial printer to these terminals for a hard copy? Also, it would have been nice if these devices had more built-in features rather than being dedicated terminals. Imagine a Minitel with a Deskmate or Microsoft Works type app installed in ROM and a cassette recorder interface to save data, then you could telecommunicate, do wordprocessing, play games offline and do calculations on a spreadsheet, etc…

  36. Why did they end it if 20% of the market was still using it? Surely that provided enough scale to keep it going.

  37. I wonder if these had an influence on the design for the Fallout series fictional computers. It looks and behaves really similar to the terminals you see in game. I'm from the U.S. and this was a very informative video on tech before the WWW. Thanks for sharing!

  38. "There's a reason for that cheap finish"? Oops, there's a reason for everything, though! So…? (Yes, accidents have their causes for happening. Did you mean "there's a purpose for that cheap finish," then?)

  39. "This model is a brand-new one"? Well, no; it's still as old as the others from that age period. Maybe it's a new-old-stock one, though (interestingly enough).

  40. Huh, it's weird that the original version of this terminal doesn't even have its own dialer circuitry.

  41. You're gonna try using a terminal as a… terminal? Oh wow, how… "genius…" of you, haha!

  42. Hey, will you please do me the kind favor of not hiding my comments without warning just because I made several comments in a row while I was watching your videos?

  43. I lived in one of the US cities that had minitel 101 online int he 90's. It was an interesting and educational time; life changing to be honest.

  44. I wonder if Bastian spent some time in the UK. He sounds like he picked up English in Catford. It's an interesting sound mix.

  45. In 1986 my dad bought the popular Amstard PC-1512. It came with a 1200bps modem for Minitel access. And it displayed color Minitel pages! Pretty impressive for all my friends using the standard black&white standard (and free) France Télécom Minitel-1 terminal.

  46. Glad it's your International Data Rate and not mine , He he , Great message left in the Chat , Good to see Services available to Dial into . We have 2 or 3 BBS terminals Here in St.Louis Mo. It is Still fun to Use them . Great Content . Thank You 🙂 QC

  47. Germany had something similar by that time called BTX (german abreviation for "Bildschirmtext" or screentext in English) which started in 1983 but failed already long time before the French version.

  48. My grandpa used his minitel since 1982 to the very last day of his life in June 2012. Every morning for 30 entire years he woke up, updated his ephemeris calendar, and went on the 3615 LBP (la banque postale, the french post bank service) to see his accounts. We only bought him his first computer and installed the wifi for Christmas 2012 and he was always telling me that he will forever prefer the minitel. that was such a great piece of technology. i got his minitel since he passed away two years ago and from time to time i connect it to go on jelora's server or the 3614 HACKER which is a recreation of an old minitel server from the eighties!

  49. Don't forget that during the 1981 presidential elections, the name (his face) of the winner was revealed using the minitel!
    Here is the video:

    I worked on minitels for 6 years in the early 90s, for several 36 15 sex chat services!

    I remember sitting in front of my 8 screens for hours, answering as fast as I could!

    Thanks to the minitel I can now type really fast! 🙂

    Thanx for your video!

  50. I remember when I got my first dial up account around 1994 and I think city wide only about a dozen users could connect at the same time. It was a very rural area. WWW access through the Lynx browser, that I viewed over Windows Terminal.

  51. thanks for the time capsule, i'm french and it was a delight to remember all of this… but not the crazy high phone bills my parents had to pay as i was using 3614 RTEL, an IRC equivalent full of old school geeks and nerds. cheers !

  52. Just found this video, and brings back memories from when I was an IT techy at a college in Kent in the early 90's. We had a European Employment Service (EurES) department, and the manager was French, and she brought a Minitel terminal in to the office, and I had to set it up on our PABX system …from what I recall the keyboard folded up in to the screen. I can't remember what model it was though. I believe it also had a serial port, which I had to setup and connect to an Epson dot matrix printer. It was used to access the EurES french employment vacancies, but it wasn't long before this was replaced with a dial up service via a PC

  53. It was so much easier to use Minitel than the phone book. You could also find your degree results as well (Licence, Maitrise, DEA, DESS). A great service. In "L' Etudiante", a 1988 movie with Sophie Marceau, there is a scene where Valentine finds her results to her teaching examination via the Minitel. @ 1:23:50

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