Computers: Minitel made the world my huitre: France Telecom's information service

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The Independent Online
WHEN WE MOVED to France, the next essential item on the shopping list, after bread, cheese and wine, was a telephone line. We left the France Telecom office with two telephones, an assurance that someone would arrive at our out-of-town house to connect them within four days and a tiny computer terminal called a Minitel.

France Telecom bettered its promise and within three days not only were the two lines connected but one started ringing. Some friends, who knew only our name and nearest town had 'found us on the Minitel' from a Toulouse post office. It is a far cry from using BT's directory enquiries, or waiting for that existential rite of passage when your name eventually appears in the paper directory. Dial 11 and, provided you know the first four letters of the subscriber's name and have a rough idea of where they live, the Minitel will find the full name, address and number.

The same goes for Yellow Pages inquiries. Enter a request in plain French, such as Mon tele est foutu (My TV is bust) followed by a location and a list of local television repairers will appear. There is also access to all sorts of official information, ranging through postcodes, how to renew your passport to National Service, and providing you can conclude your research within three minutes, it is free.

Nobody at the local branch of France Telecom could tell me how many sets were in circulation, so naturally, I posted a query via the Minitel. The next morning a helpful woman rang me to say there were 6.5 million, in addition to those who use a computer and modem to access the services. The basic model is free, but 20 francs a month hires a more sophisticated model with three essential enhancements: you can dial from the keyboard without having to use a separate phone, you can protect against unauthorised use with a password and it does not come in that foul combination of dog-poo brown and sickly beige that looks like a municipal rubbish bin.

The directory function is just the tip of an enormous iceberg of information. By dialling a four-figure code starting with 36, you can connect to information providers ranging from share price services to the Jacques Brel fan club. I wanted to buy a second-hand car, so the first step was to call my bank's computer and type in a password to find out how much money I had.

There is a large choice of classified advertisement services - 3615 VROUM looked promising - and tapping in the make, model and maximum price summoned a list of possibilities, with year, price and location. Tapping the index number of an entry revealed further details, such as colour, kilometrage and the vendor's telephone number. Having short-listed a few, 3615 ARGUS connected me to an on-line buyer's guide to check that the asking price was reasonable. Geography and economics narrowed the choice down to two, and alas, one had been sold that morning and the other number was permanently engaged. But had I succeeded in buying a car, the world would have been my hutre.

Accessing travel services, I could find out the times of flights and ferries, discover what special offers were going and book tickets by credit card. Next 3615 ITI would work out a trans-European route and advise on restaurants and hotels on the way. The wise traveller would also tap in 3615 ENGREVE to see if any strikes threatened their travel plans.

It is easy to get hooked on Minitel; 3615 MINIVET will inform you what ails the cat and if it is something terminal, the same service has a classified advertisement section to find a replacement. There are all sorts of ways to spend money - you can pay bills, find out what is on throughout France and book tickets and - if you really want to impress your American friends - send them flowers.

You can polish up your CV, learn English, look for a job, recruit domestic staff, or work out your tax liability. There are radiopaging, fax and electronic mail facilities as well as the now almost compulsory access to the Internet, the global information network. There are also links to foreign services, including a Prestel connection to some press releases of mind-numbing dullness from the UK Central Office of Information and a regrettably garbled list of job opportunities in Sofia.

Supplied with the apparatus is a thick, printed directory of available services, though naturally this information is also available on-line, with a similar friendly interface as the directory. Itineraire routier, for example, provided me with a list of all the route-finding and related services. More 'information providers' advertise in the local and national press, reflecting the keen French interest in health, horoscopes and the pursuit of true love. The last abound, with lonely hearts sporting such pseudonyms as Pinocchio or Stawberry-Vanilla sending each other poems and billets-doux.

Seasoned philanderers will welcome a 'my wife is coming' panic button which immediately fills the screen with some plausible and boring government statistics.

More forthright are services such as 3615 TOSS, advertised in a respectable national daily, and offering 'Furtive love, bolts of lightning and pleasures of one night. All is possible on the 'premier minitel du tossing'.' Thinking perhaps that the Franglais had suffered a little in transit, I dialled in. Clearly 'tossing' does not convey the same sense of solitude in French as in English, for a 50-year-old women who liked to dominer la situation was anxious to make contact. In journalistic tradition your reporter made his excuses and hung up.

The young are also well-served, with games, competitions and on-line gig bookings. The 3615 MCM service, run by a non-stop cable television music channel also offers a CD swapping service.

The down side of all this is the expense. Minitel is 10 years old now and the information is transmitted at less than one-tenth of the speed of a modern computer-modem link, so scrolling through the pages of information can be horribly slow. The on-line costs range from 36 centimes a minute to a staggering nine francs and though clearly marked rarely reflect the nature or usefulness of the service.

On-line 'tossing' was an unexploitative 1.27 francs per minute and a route from my home in the Lot to La Spezia in Italy, avoiding toll-roads and with some suggestions for meal stops totalled seven francs. The same service faxed back cost 23 francs and within seconds I had a piece of paper that was almost totally blank. Such are the joys of technology, but a second attempt was successful.

A more trivial pursuit, accepting an invitation to calculate my ideal weight, was charged at a far higher rate. It was also so bedecked with questionnaires and side-tracks, that this information, available free from the chart in the local pharmacy, cost nearly 50 francs.

It is important in using Minitel, therefore, to avoid the exploitative, know all the short-cuts and press the Sommaire button when first connecting to give a running total of the cost of the call. Finally, if you have teenagers or a philandering spouse, use that password lock.

Minitel can be accessed from UK via France Telecom Network Services: 071 379 4747 (voice); 071 379 1404 (fax).

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