After 3 decades in France, the days of Minitel are numbered
Mr. Bazire is currently developing programs for touchscreen computers and smartphones which, he hopes, will replace Minitel among local farmers. However, the new technology has received little interest and only a few dozen devices are in use. Mr. Bazire fears that, despite decades spent on the Minitel, some farmers will return to paper records.
If they are among the last to rely on Minitel, farmers were not the only ones to use and adore the network at its peak. In the mid-1990s, 9 million Minitel devices were in use in France, with 25 million users, or nearly half of the population, said Karin Lefevre, division director at France Telecom-Orange who oversaw the Minitel network. In 1996, nearly 26,000 different services were available, developed by 10,000 companies and technology start-ups. (A number of successful French tech entrepreneurs have started to develop services for Minitel.)
At first, the French authorities had hoped to export their invention, but they insisted that the Minitel be sold as an “all-in” system, said Valérie Schafer, telecommunications historian. This rigidity has helped make the Minitel a commercial failure outside of France, said Schafer, especially given the varying telecommunications standards in Europe and elsewhere.
“Everyone envied us for that,” Ms. Schafer said, citing what she called a well-worn phrase. “Nobody bought it.”
In France, however, the Minitel has been ubiquitous for almost two decades. Until 2007, the network generated well over $ 100 million in revenue for France Telecom-Orange and online service providers.
There used to be services for checking inventory, applying to college, or viewing bank statements. As a teenager, Ms. Lefevre checked her results in the baccalaureate, the national high school exit competition, on the Minitel in her parents’ room in Paris.
Most of the services no longer exist, but among the last functional Minitel programs are “pink messaging”, “pink message service” which were the first adult chat rooms in the world. They were once advertised on billboards, condemned by conservative politicians, and mentioned in pop songs, including Michel Polnareff’s plaintive 1989 ballad “Au revoir Marylou”.