Computers: Minitel gets on the road: France's successful telephone information and sales service based on Prestel is being made available in Britain. Frank Barrett reports

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Towards the end of 1977 I was given a personal demonstration by its inventors of a new computer-linked telephone service. The service, invented by a technological wizard at the forerunners of British Telecom, was called Prestel - and I was assured that it would revolutionise home and business life.

Initially Prestel was marketed to the travel business, an industry that depends heavily on telecommunications. Travel agencies rapidly acquired Prestel sets and for the first time they had direct access to tour operator computer booking systems. The revolution seemed about to begin. But it turned out to be not the beginning, but the end; Prestel never really broke out of the travel agency. This month British Telecom finally pulled the plug and another Great British invention completed its journey to the dustbin of history.

Well, not quite. While the British operators of Prestel were limiting their vision to getting a Prestel set into every travel agency office, the French government had drawn up a much more ambitious plan.

The French telephone company, burdened with the difficult - and expensive - business of compiling voluminous telephone directories, saw Prestel as the answer. France Telecom decided to hand out free of charge Minitel terminals instead of telephone books, giving all its subscribers on-line access to the national directory.

Britain treated the French plan with scorn: the service would succeed in the home only after it was established in business. Prestel was wrong.

Since Minitel was officially launched in France at the end of 1982, it has created a brand new telecommunications industry. From directory inquiries, it has grown at a phenomenal rate: there are now 6.4 million regular users accessing the services of more than 24,000 information providers selling everything from sex and banking to career management, credit checking and legal advice. Each year there are more than one billion connections to Minitel, clocking up a total of 90 million 'connect' hours, providing France Telecom with an annual income of more than pounds 200m.

Now after selling Minitel to other countries, France Telecom has finally turned its attention to Britain. Christopher Taylor, product marketing executive in London for France Telecom Network Services, says the On Line exhibition at Olympia was 'a first toe in the water' before it launches a full-scale marketing campaign in Britain in the new year.

He believes initial demand for Minitel will come from universities, libraries, schools and businesses that deal frequently with French companies. But there is much on Minitel to interest the home user, particularly for people keen on holidays in France. Travel service providers include the cross-Channel ferry companies, French Railways, Air France, the main French hotel groups. Not only can you get information on their services, but with a credit card you can make bookings.

By dialling into Michelin, for example, Minitel users can get a detailed itinerary on the fastest route from, say, Calais to Venice - or you can choose the most picturesque roads. At the double-click of a mouse you will be offered a list of Michelin recommended hotels. All of this takes just a couple of minutes and everything can be printed out or stored to disk.

While there is a wide selection of services in English, Minitel is mostly in French. This does not pose a formidable barrier to non-French speakers. If you are worried about grave accents, cedillas and circumflexes, you will be pleased to learn that Minitel ignores them.

The Minitel software for PCs supplied by France Telecom for pounds 90.48 (including VAT) is in English. For those keen for the authentic Minitel experience, France Telecom can supply BT-approved stand- alone Minitel sets for pounds 374.82 (inc VAT).

It costs pounds 25 to become a Minitel subscriber; payment provides users with a London number and a password for the service. Costs for the services range from pounds 9 to pounds 68.30 an hour, depending on the information provider - access to Michelin, for example, costs about pounds 16 an hour - plus, of course, the cost of the call.

While France Telecom is initially offering access to its French system, it is likely to develop a UK network. The rumour in the business is that Minitel will soon acquire the remains of Prestel. True to a sad British tradition, it looks as if we will end up buying back one of our own inventions.

France Telecom Network Services: 071-379 4747; fax 071-379 1404.

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