Minitel goes dark

The last 800,000 Minitel terminals in France will go dark this month, as the service is finally shut down. Minitel was a proprietary network service that used "free" dumb terminals to access online services, typically at a small fee for each use. Minitel was much loved by business because every use generated revenue for them, and by its users, especially when it was the only game in town.

But it's also an existence proof of the power of open systems. Minitel boasts 1,800 services up and running. Imagine if the Web boasted a whopping 1,800 websites -- like the "500-channel cable universe," the numbers that seemed like an unbelievable banquet of choice in the 1980s now seem like a farcically constrained menu, the digital equivalent of the half-dozen standard clothing styles in a Soviet department store.

At the end of this month, Minitel will finally go offline, ending a brave experiment in French exceptionalism. The surprise is that the network has lasted so long.

There are still 810,000 Minitel terminals in France, mostly used by older people who dislike computers. There are still 1,800 services available through Minitel, although most people these days contact them (final indignity) through the Internet.

Argument still rages about whether the Minitel, run by France Telecom and its predecessor, the PTT, was a fast-track into the future or a destructive dead-end. The mushroom-coloured box has become an emblem of France's struggles with a globalised, and allegedly Anglo-Saxon dominated, world.

It has often been argued that the obsession of the French state with the Minitel impeded France's conversion to the Internet. Either way, Minitel itself proved to be a kind of "Neanderthal- technology -” a huge evolutionary advance that was doomed to be swept away by a smarter, more flexible and more aggressive cousin.

Death of an invention (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. Good riddance ! As a french, I can tell you that in the 90’s, the stupid executives at France Telecom went to great lengths to cap the bandwith of the young internet, just to ensure the survival of their cash-making dinosaur.

    I still remember my old boss using it to find out I passed a professional exam I didn’t care about. The administration was always so clingy about using the minitel.

    Now your days are numbered, you clunky old fax ! (Yes that is the other big french anachronism we still use).

  2. “a brave experiment in French exceptionalism”, “destructive dead-end”, “France’s struggles with a globalised, and allegedly Anglo-Saxon dominated, world”, “obsession of the French state “, “Neanderthal- technology”, “some French people still insist on the superiority of Minitel over the Internet.”

    What, no mention of Vichy France? 

    1. Now that Minitel is being shut down, France’s status as a country of cheese-eating surrender monkeys is confirmed. Happy now?

      1. Not really. It should have been in the original article.

        Some people here would like to complete a Bingo, you see.

  3. Two things.

    First it was actually very open, I don’t understand what you’re getting at. Anyone could set up a server, just like any BBS, really, on any phone line. Plugging into the paid services infrastructure was not that hard either, as long as you had a business set up to handle the taxes. Second generation (the most common) “1B” terminals supported 80 col. VT52. The 40 col. terminal control set was very well documented, in fact most everything about the system was well documented. Secondly, there was a decent best practice document for user interface design so that usability was typically way better than most websites well into the 90s.

    1. Considering that websites didn’t become en vogue until well into the 90s, that’s not saying much.  :-)

        1. Er. Back then I was writing custom import filters and CM systems for large German publishers, “invented” ads in video streams, designed methods for page impression and visit detection before the advent of cookie…. I think I have a pretty good grasp on what services were commn back then Adoption was certainly ahead in the USA, but Minitel/BTX was an Euopean affair anyway.

          Just look up the numbers. Even in 1996 only a fifth of Americans had access to the Internet.

          You could still get more out of Usenet than the Web until about 1994 and still order books via telnet from I think

          Ah yes, Just checked, back n 1995 I maintained a list of sources of for English language sf and was still on it. A couple of websitestoo, of course.

          1.  One of the reasons you pups amuse me is you’re so easily trolled.  :)

            The web isn’t much different from liquid gopherspace, eh?

  4. I don’t know how Minitel worked, but it had always been my impression that the French were doing things on-line ages before we were. It seems like innovation passed them up, but the idea seems beyond mockery.

  5. Interesting to consider it in context – the original IPv4 spec was published in 1980, the same year that Usenet was established (running via UUCP). Minitel went into production in 1982.  Tim Berners-Lee produced the first web server and browser in 1990.

    I remember my parents using Minitel in 1989 for transit directions in Paris – though with obviously less graphical prettiness, the quality of the search and directions was right up there with what Google maps just achieved in the past few years.

    1. The system seems more analogous to the various dial-up BBCs run by individuals in the 80s and into the 90s.  There were many thousand of them throughout the country for awhile, until the Internet came along and rendered them obsolete. 

      The thing with Minitel is that unlike BBSes, there was a big bureaucracy backing it up so it was kept on life support long after the BBSes were all gone. 

      1. I have sometimes wondered if the net would never have happened if one could have dialed into multiple BBSs at the same time, and hit a key combo to jump between them.

      2. That’s certainly part of it – another part is that the terminals were deployed all over the place, and their use was more integrated into people’s habits than BBSes ever got.

        Even given that though – it does seem amazing that Minitel was kept running into 2012.

  6. Also, “” via the parent company Illiad got funded through the profit reaped out of the Minitel. They were the first real alternative to incumbant telcos that got deregulated.

    The CEO of the company saw the wind turn and want ahed full on on monetizing on Internet access with free (0 EUR) service until it launched its broadband ISP / Telco, and now cheap cell service.

    And as a previous poster said, you could develop a Minitel service easily with open and documented protocols. You could run one on an Apple ][ or IBM PC/AT.

  7. realistically, the minitel was more than French exceptionalism…they were pioneers with the concepts that evolved into the internet as we know it. yes, i am amazed that it still existed until this day, but France telecom kept it going for the faithful…now, the real discussion should be about the availability, the economy and the quality of the present French internet network.
    I’m sitting in a ancient farmhouse in a corner of the Correze at the end of country lane in the middle of nowhere and I have better, cheaper internet service than most people in America.

  8. I had a minitel for a few months in SF back in the late 80’s. Not much to do on it. They got Safeway to do a delivery service of some kind and that was about all I remember about it.

    1. Wonder if there’s any way to make those Minitel Terminals useful for something. Would be a shame to just land-fill ’em.

  9. At the time it was first created it was. Well… A lot like the whole Community Memory project that predated BBS’s over here back in the seventies. Problem is it almost feels, to my uneducated eye, that rather than continue to improve and innovate it stayed fairly stagnent and rather than actually do much once the Internet came around to public use there was bandwidth capping, legistlation, and you know… the usual we’re seeing when Big Business is trying to kneecap competition rather than genuinely offer up something worthwhile as it’s own product.

    Honestly  I’d have thought Minitel would have integrated itself into a French-National social network and expand, using national sentiment and an air of familiarity to get the oldsters to slowly consider setting up shop online.I mean c’mon, how hard could it be to write something that connects through the net but presents the familiar interface yet have some improvements rolled out as time progressed (to the point where you could just use it on a browser, or have a browser version and a ‘minitel client’ version…. then again that’d probably be hard to pull. Probably harder to tax. I dunno.

  10. The amazing thing isn’t that there were 1810 “channels” on Minitel – it’s that they still had that into the 2010s, on a service that’s been been surpassed by the Internet and mobile phones years ago.  When did you last use a modem to talk to a BBS?

    Disclaimer – Back in the 80s, a different part of the company I worked for made the computers that powered Minitel.  They weren’t very effective for most of the things we hoped we’d be able to sell them for, in spite of how the Powerpoint slides looked like they’d be perfect for air traffic control systems, but if you needed thousands of serial ports running low-speed cooked-mode text, they actually were really good at it. 

  11. I didn’t see any mention of Minitel’s American cousin Videotel landing on our shores.  I have some good memories of using a US Videotel terminal at a friend’s house in the early 90s.  Thanks France!

    Classic Bronson Pinchot spot hawking Videotel in Houston

  12. “There are still 810,000 Minitel terminals in France, mostly used by older people who dislike computers.”
    And who can blame them, given the circumstances?

    1.  I do online tech support for a large national cable company, and sometimes the frustration older folks feel trying to do simple things like send and read e-mail or view pictures someone sent them is almost enough to make me weep myself.  There are just so many ways for things to go wrong.  Macs seem to be less susceptible to this problem than Windoze machines, but it’s all still pretty brittle.  I keep thinking of those cheap, easy-to-use dedicated dial-up e-mail terminals that were all the fad for about two days a few decades ago.  We almost need an updated version of something like that.  I remember being really saddened when Office Max gave up on selling them on clearance for $9 each or something and I asked what they were going to do with the remaining hundreds of units.  The answer?  Smash them with a hammer and throw them in a dumpster.  :-(

      1. Hey there Culturedropout – you’re so right. 

        In that vein, why can’t the French just keep Minitel for another 15 years? Acquaintances of mine have parents and grandparents (I’m 41) who still use this and wish it’s not being scrapped.

         Anyway – there is something called Eldy that is promising – and kinda sorta fits the description of the terminal you describe, only it has a GUI and etcetera and runs on top of popular operating systems.  

        For the record – I am not involved with Eldy – I only dinked around with it for a few hours a couple of years ago when deciding on what sort of system an elder relative of a friend might use – we decided to get her a new computer and classes at the senior center, which worked splendidly.But Eldy seemed pretty viable for the right situation.

        BTW – the elder in question  (82 at the time) – an American – would have been quite happy with Minitel for her needs ;)   — but she’s happier using the new machine and the lessons we gently um…made her attend were the catalyst for her becoming pretty adept with the computer and a power user of various video and graphic programs.

  13. I think all the French bashing really just, as usual, comes from jealousy and self consciousness issues, and old longstanding adversarial cultural memes. It’s really boring.

  14. I’m with those here who frown upon this rather reflexive French-bashing. The French commenters who deplore the attempts, in particular by the administration (what US people would call “government”) and by France Télécom to keep reaping benefits from the network, during its last years when it should have been laid to rest, are making good points but beyond this, there’s no doubt whatsoever that this was a technologically advanced and bold piece of technology. I moved to France in the first half of the 90s, from Germany, and online services were WAY more developed there. It may have slowed down the spread of the web as a graphical online marketing tool for a few years but I’d doubtful if it slowed down the internet, as the French people I was hanging out with at least were ready and primed for Usenet, email and all that. 

    Not every history has to be told in terms of winners and losers. There was never any question of Minitel competing with the WWW. It was overtaken by something even more awesome, but it predated it by a long way. And the term “exceptionalism” is really badly chosen — what should the French have done? NOT invent something because it would be replaced, ultimately, by something invented nearly 10 years later?

    1.  Look, the French live longer, eat better, work less, and generally enjoy life more than the rest of us.  They have a “mistress hour” when other cultures have a siesta.  We pick on them because we’re jealous, and they’ll just damn well have to suck it up.

    2. I lived and worked in France for two years (I recently moved to Israel after that), and I can tell you that I both love and hate the French. =) I speak it fluently, I absolutely love the culture in many ways, and don’t even get me started on how I miss the food (spoiled! I was spoiled rotten!) But some things drove me insane in the culture – especially in the corporate culture. And for part of that (a small part), the culture of Minitel was to blame. =P

      I still love France in many ways and speak French fluently, but I’ll still pick on them  whenever it is convenient. =)

      Don’t worry, I pick on everyone – Americans too.

      Except the British. I’ve lived in London, and England is the summation of all that is good in the world. =)

  15. A business still offering 1500 services to 800000 customers does not sound like a total failure to me.  

    (Actually, it sounds like the state governments of Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, and the Dakotas.)

  16. I’m surprised no one has  mentioned “3615 ULLA” and the “Minitel rose” trend of the late 80’s so far… Long before the Internet, the french family only computer was already dedicated to porn.

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