Minitel, the Open Network Before the Internet

In 1991, maximum Americans had not yet heard of the internet. But all of France changed into online, buying, selling, gaming, and chatting, way to a ubiquitous little container that linked to the cellphone. It became known as Minitel.

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Minitel became a computer terminal. It housed a screen, a keyboard, and a modem—however not a microprocessor. Instead of computing on its personal, Minitel related to far-flung offerings via uplink, like a Sixties mainframe or a current Google Chromebook. Terminals had been given out, at no cost, to every French cellphone subscriber through the state (which additionally ran the cellphone agency).

Minitel changed into a massive success. With loose terminals at domestic or paintings, humans in France ought to connect with greater than 25,000 on line services lengthy before the world huge internet had even been invented. Many offerings of the dotcom-and-app eras had precursors in 1980s France. With a Minitel, one may want to study the information, interact in multi-player interactive gaming, grocery keep for same-day shipping, post herbal language requests like “reserve theater tickets in Paris,” purchase stated tickets the usage of a credit card, remotely manage thermostats and other home home equipment, control a financial institution account, chat, and date.


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Minitel becomes decommissioned in 2012 after 30 years of prominent service. The terminals nonetheless functioned, but they could not cope with advances in images technology, their modems had been previous, and the French had lengthy on account that moved directly to the net.

But Minitel’s training stay on, and with new relevance. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order made network neutrality regulation in 2015. But this yr, it has come underneath assault via both cable internet operators and the present day FCC chairman. The American implementation of a community derived from Minitel turned into finished through non-public industry on my own. It failed in component because its usage became now not regulated by means of the government. For this cause, it gives a view of the past on why the FCC’s move nowadays is probably inaccurate. It seems that regulated networks may provide better marketplace opportunities.

In Silicon Valley, Minitel is often derided as a “backwards machine,” the epitome of nation centralization and bureaucracy. As the enemy of innovative agility. But Minitel was the simplest on-line carrier to reach mass-market penetration to attain mass-marketplace penetration earlier than the late Nineteen Nineties. Similar systems inside the U.S., inclusive of The Source, DowJones, Compuserve, and AOL, were simplest reachable to the wealthy, geeky few. These American systems have been also centralized networks, gated communities in which all content turned into curated with the aid of the carrier company. They were the PC versions of a cable-tv package.

By contrast, Minitel didn’t operate as a closed community. Unlike AOL or Facebook, the French state made Minitel an open and neutral platform, which allowed customers to hook up with privately run offerings. The state telecom constructed and operated the underlying infrastructure for the community, and it then allowed anybody to provide offerings atop it, as long as they registered to do so. Minitel merged state intervention (construct and maintain the market) with marketplace-neutrality (all and sundry can promote criminal services and products). That mixture catalyzed the boom of Minitel services.

In 1991, France Telecom attempted to breed their domestic Minitel fulfillment within the U.S. Thru a San Francisco-based totally undertaking called 101 Online. It appeared like a match made in heaven. What become then the world’s maximum a hit public laptop network become set to meet the world’s hippest tech crowd. For a further cool element, France Telecom employed John Coate, the fellow who had became San Francisco’s on line bulletin board device, The WELL, into the sector’s maximum influential on-line community on the time.


As network manager, Coate dispensed the little Minitel field to technology and subculture leaders which include Alan Lundell of Byte mag and Mondo 2000. He also took terminals to rave parties consisting of Oakland’s 1992 Woody Ball, where hip crowds chatted in virtual kick back rooms, all if you want to construct a brand new digital network. The ravers loved it.

But curiosity by myself wasn’t enough to spur American adoption of Minitel. It wished a community with an intrinsic price. And communities arise whilst people can meet and change items, offerings, and thoughts freely.

Consider a farmers marketplace. If a metropolis builds and runs one, it must let all types of criminal items to be sold there for the infrastructure to provide maximum cost. If residents can most effective buy tomatoes and oranges, but now not kale nor lettuce, then the cost of the marketplace is restrained. The identical is real of PC networks: If an internet provider issuer does not allow content material vendors freely get admission to the infrastructure that the person has rented (through a cable or cellular telephone subscription), the cost of the net as an entire will become depleted. That’s why the American Minitel failed—and why humans have to be involved approximately ISPs being able to restriction the traffic on broadband and wi-fi networks.

On paper, a hundred and one Online understood the difference among an open, on line platform and a cable TV package. In a press release, it outlined its mission: to provide Bay Area residents “with a powerful and green new way to communicate with every different.” The one zero one Online forum, their rebranding of the Minitel network, became said to be “an electronic ‘meeting region’… the first extensively available and reasonably-priced digital medium that permits society to talk directly with itself without TV, radio, and newspapers appearing as a cross-among.”

But in practice, a hundred and one Online acted as a move-among for online content material. Instead of letting content material providers manipulate their personal services, as France Telecom had finished, it replicated the dominant model for U.S. On-line networks of the generation: curating all of the content material itself. Individuals and agencies couldn’t plug into the network and sell their content material, items, and services like their French counterparts had executed, and as dotcom startups might soon do on the web. Instead, they needed to travel to one zero one Online’s office in downtown San Francisco, hand a floppy to an operator, and watch for its content to be transformed to 101 Online’s proprietary layout and uploaded to the business enterprise’s server.

As one zero one’s head of advertising might later admit, “we did not create an atmosphere permitting anyone but us to make money.” It wasn’t whatever new for on-line systems to be had to Americans at the time. In a 1983, for instance, the net model of the World Book Encyclopedia became removed from the CompuServe on line platform and changed with the Grolier electronic encyclopedia—likely the end result of a few behind-the-scenes licensing deal. The equal year, The Source introduced a brand new policy for curating the content material on its platform: “new merchandise are receiving near scrutiny primarily based on possibly lengthy-time period usage fees, instead of ‘interest getter characteristics.’” It should not come as a wonder that The Source chose to act as a curator, since it changed into the online arm of Reader’s Digest, itself a grasp curator. No greater than it need to startle every body that AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon—all network carriers who additionally personal content businesses—might need to do the equal with the internet.

What might wonder a proponent of personal enterprise over state-run offerings, but, is that it changed into personal-zone operators who curtailed those early on-line structures—while in Minitel’s case, the state had remained agnostic. One zero one Online used precisely the identical era that the French had applied across the Atlantic. But when the non-public quarter became fully in rate of administering the platform, it selected to limit instead of facilitate the marketplace.

Jessica J. Underwood
Subtly charming explorer. Pop culture practitioner. Creator. Web guru. Food advocate. Typical travel maven. Zombie fanatic. Problem solver. Was quite successful at developing wooden tops in the aftermarket. A real dynamo when it comes to exporting glucose in Bethesda, MD. Had moderate success managing action figures in New York, NY. Set new standards for selling crayon art in Salisbury, MD. In 2009 I was getting my feet wet with sock monkeys for the underprivileged. Spoke at an international conference about merchandising toy elephants in Nigeria.