The Web Before The Web

How France Invented a Popular, Profitable Internet of Its Own in the 80s: The Rise and Fall of Minitel

Colin Marshall, writing at Open Culture:

Conceived in the “white heat of President Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s technological great leap forward of the late 1970s,” Minitel appeared as one of the signal efforts of a nationwide developmental project. “France was lagging behind on telecommunications,” writes the Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis, “with the nation’s homes underserved by telephones – particularly in rural areas.” But soon after the rollout of the Minitel, usage exploded such that, “at the height of its glory in the mid-1990s, the French owned about 9m Minitel devices, with 25m users connecting to more than 23,000 services.” Initially pitched to the public as a replacement for the paper telephone directory, the Minitel evolved to provide many of the services for which most of the world now relies on the modern internet.

Here in the UK, we had Prestel, and the Canadians had Telidon.

While these systems seem primitive compared to even the early Web, let alone private online services like CompuServe and BIX, the very fact that they were developed and worked is quite the achievement.

As Valérie Schafer, co-author of the book Minitel: France’s Digital Childhood puts it to Chriasafis, “There’s a nostalgia for an era when the French developed new ideas, took risks on ideas that didn’t just look to the US or outside models; a time when we wanted to invent our own voice.”

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