Thirty years ago, France led the world into the 21st century, but the world hardly noticed. In 1981-82, two French inventions offered a glimpse of the future. One was the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) or high-speed train. The other was the Minitel. The what?
Long before the coming of the World Wide Web, the Minitel provided a sort of internet-in-one-country. Long before Facebook, Google or Twitter – millions of French people went "online" daily to search for information, to book their holidays, chat to strangers or seek cheap (or not so cheap) sexual thrills.
The Minitel – a rather sinister, computer-like terminal attached to classic telephone landlines – was installed in one million French homes by 1985. At the end of the 1990s, nine million terminals were linked to some 25,000 Minitel services. So the French invented the internet? No, not exactly.
Of two ideas launched in France in 1981-82, it was the seemingly backward-looking one – the TGV – which seduced the world. The Minitel, though far ahead of its time, was an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It never spread abroad and was overtaken in the 1990s by the "real" internet "invented" in the United States.
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.
The Minitel was the world's first large data base accessible to the public. The Minitel terminal – provided free to subscribers – was the first screen-and-keyboard combination widely available in any country. Minitel had chat lines where people could commentate on world events, or their own lives, long before the blogosphere. There was even an abbreviated Minitel language, rather like "text speak", such as "slt, té ki?" (salut, qui es- tu; or hello, who are you?)
But Minitel, compared with the web, had many limitations. The terminals were not computers. They could not analyse or store information. They could not randomly "search" the network. They could only call up the addresses of the 25,000 or more services officially affiliated to the system. Access was pay-as-you-go or by subscription and – especially in the case of the sex lines on the "Minitel Rose" or "pink Minitel" – could be very expensive.
The imminent demise of the Minitel has produced a surge of reminiscences on the early days of the service. And at least one confession.
Gerome Nox, a veteran male French pop musician, admitted this week to the newspaper Libération that he had in a previous life been "Julie", an "animatrice" or hostess on one of the first Minitel text-sex lines. Few women wanted the work, he said, so most of the "hostesses", paid the equivalent of £2.50 an hour, were men.
"(The clients) were like a shoal of starving piranha fish," he said. "No hello. No polite openings. It was to the point and crude." After a while he realised that "my Julie" had become "disagreeable, wicked and odious". He announced online that he was a man "whose job is to inflate all your phone bills. So you've all been screwed, just like you wanted to be". He was fired the next day.
Bills run up on Minitel Rose became legendary. It is less known that beneficiaries of this early text-sex were conservative, regional newspapers. They received exclusive rights to set up lucrative Minitel services, including the Minitel Rose, after complaining that the dull little consoles appearing in every home in France would be the "death of print culture". Plus ça change.
Minitel had rivals in other countries, even before the internet spread around the globe. There was Ceefax in Britain and NAPLPS in the United States. But none of these systems were as comprehensive or effective as Minitel. On the US system, it could take six minutes for a single page to appear on the screen.
But France never managed to sell the Minitel technology abroad. The US took a great interest in the French invention in the 1980s but declined to buy it. By the 1990s, the internet was on the way. To all but the stubborn French, the future of information technology was personal computers linked, internationally, by the servers and search engines which created the web.
Even today, some French people still insist on the superiority of Minitel over the internet. There is a Facebook group calling for a "return to the Minitel". Older people, like Claudette, 80, say they will be devastated when they lose their little terminals. "I use it several times a week to consult my accounts," she said. "I have a little table with my Minitel, my telephone and my answering-machine. What else do I need?"
Gérard Neyret has been campaigning for three years for the Minitel system to be preserved. "You don't get the clouds of useless information that you get on the internet," he said. "There is no risk of viruses or fraud. It was a remarkable invention."
On the last day of this month, nonetheless, the last of the Minitel screens will go blank. It will prove to be a historic moment, much like the last day of the stage-coaches from Paris to Lyon or the last steam trains from Marseille to Calais.
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