France is finally abandoning its precursor to the Internet
It is known as the “Little French Box”, a design classic of the 1980s, now considered the ultimate in beige plastic kitsch. But once he was a bold precursor to the World Wide Web, he brought the first cybersex to people’s living rooms and had a user-friendly design that may have inspired Steve Jobs’ first Macintosh computer.
However, on Saturday, we will finally disconnect the Minitel machine, the only pride of France, 30 years after its launch.
And while the nation marvels at the fact that 800,000 clunky terminals with massive buttons are still in circulation, the Minitel loses its boxy image and enjoys a moment of mass nostalgia. Farewell parties and commemorative newspapers recall the time when, thanks to Minitel, the French public could electronically consult the weather forecast, book vacations, monitor their bank accounts and consult stock prices or horoscopes more than a decade before. any other country. And yet, the Minitel has failed to sell itself abroad and has lived in almost glorious isolation in France.
The Minitel was imagined in the 1970s, when France was lagging behind in telecommunications, with households in the country being poorly served by telephone, especially in rural areas. In a technological dawn in France, it was, with the TGV, a question of political and national pride.
The state-owned communications company developed a system combining telephone and information technology, and in 1982 rolled out Minitel, providing telephones free of charge to households – the first screen-keyboard combination widely available in a country.
First, it was used as electronic yellow pages. Other services soon followed, paid for very easily via per-minute charges on the family phone bill, with service providers receiving a discount. Soon the French used it to check exam results, apply to college, book trains, and chat online, years before blogs or social media on the Internet.
At the height of its glory in the mid-1990s, the French owned around 9 million Minitel devices, with 25 million users connected to more than 23,000 services. Former President Jacques Chirac boasted that a baker from Aubervilliers in the Paris suburbs could check his bank account on the Minitel, asking insistently: “Can the same be said of a baker in New York?”
One of Minitel’s biggest successes has been the so-called “Minitel Rose”, the world’s first adult chat rooms, where people using pseudonyms patiently exchanged steamy messages that spelled out what now looks an eternity to appear on the screen.
Several of today’s most influential media bosses have made huge fortunes using “pink messaging” services with their chat room start-ups. Services with names like Ulla have acquired legendary status in France, billboards advertised the services and even a pop ballad, Michel Polnareff’s Goodbye Marylou immortalized these late-night erotic exchanges, thinking of banging on her keyboard “all the speechless words we say with our fingers”.
The longer users stayed on online messaging, the more money the service providers made.
The musician Gérôme Nox recently told the newspaper Liberation how he had worked on one of the services posing as a hostess named Julie to attract men and keep them online as long as possible. He compared the men replying to his messages to “hungry piranhas, no hello, no jokes, it was blunt and rude”. He said he decided to quit because “my Julie had become more and more disagreeable and hateful”.
He unmasked himself by typing: “My name is not Julie. I’m a man, just here to accumulate your phone bill. You got screwed, it was exactly what you wanted from the start. ” He was fired.
France tried to market the Minitel abroad but failed to secure large international buyers, and it was eventually overtaken in the late 1990s by the World Wide Web.
The official closure of the Minitel comes as many people in France still use it, ranging from farmers and the elderly without a computer to professionals such as florists and tobacconists who still place orders from suppliers through it and people who have kept the old Minitel devices as an insurance policy in case their computers catch a virus. Until 2007, it generated high income.
Janine Galey, 85, a mother of seven in Paris, said she used it for almost 20 years until around 2000, long after the advent of the internet. She did not have a computer at home and recently switched directly from the Minitel to an iPad tablet.
“As an object it was pleasing to the eye, cleverly designed, it wasn’t heavy and it didn’t take up too much space,” she said. “At first it was sitting in the office in my apartment, then on a small table in my room. It was easy to use and I used it to find names and addresses, to check train times and to book tickets. tickets.”
Valérie Schafer, co-author of the book Minitel: the digital childhood of France, declared: “At the beginning of the 80s, there was real pride for the Minitel as a success story of our national industry – with the only problem that we have never exported it, it remained very French. Then at the end of the 1990s and in the 2000s the discourse changed and the Minitel was described as rather square, outdated, late .
“But now it’s the end of Minitel, we discover that the French are attached to it, within the framework of our industrial history. Despite all the negative speeches of the past, it is now perceived as a success on the national economic level.
“Despite everything, there is a nostalgia for a time when the French were developing new ideas, taking risks on ideas that did not turn only to the United States or external models: a time when we wanted to invent our own. own voice. “