Minitel, The Weird French Cousin Of The Internet

“Computers are all right, too, but it’s not the same. I’m not very ‘Internet.’ ” —Yves Denais, French Minitel user

In A Nutshell

In the 1980s, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist, but the French had already come up with a precursor called Minitel, that still existed until just last year. While the technology may seem primitive now, it was a huge leap forward when it was first created.

The Whole Bushel

This early form of the Internet did not have a computer as we do today, but instead made use of terminals (hooked up to a telephone for dial-up service) with buttons and a screen. These terminals were incapable of the kinds of tasks we expect a computer to do, such as running programs and were capable only of accessing the Minitel network and communicating through it.

Minitel allowed French citizens to check their bank balances, view the news, chat with singles, and many of the other essential tasks that we use the Internet to perform today. And of course much like the Internet of today, Minitel had a thriving adult chat culture, sometimes known as “Minitel Pink.” However, despite being invented before the Internet, it never truly caught on outside of France and was shut down for good as of last year.

Other countries were initially intrigued by the new telecommunications system that the French had dreamed up, but there were multiple reasons why they chose not to adopt it. One of the main reasons likely had to do with the fact that the French wanted to sell it as an all-or-nothing thing, and the terminals required would probably not have appealed to Americans. The computer itself already existed by this point, and the preferable route would have been to connect computers up to Minitel as opposed to requiring a special terminal.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer services were being offered on Minitel and consumer interest slowly declined as France adopted the Internet used by the rest of the world. Before Minitel’s shutdown last year, many older French citizens were lamenting the loss of their beloved network. Many French dairy farmers in particular still used it for business and had never used, nor had any desire to use, the Internet. While it could be said that people simply need to let go of old things, for many of them it had a certain ease of use that provided a simple charm. The terminals were sturdy, and many things could be done with the push of a button.

One agricultural commissioner has been trying help dairy farmers who have come to rely on Minitel by creating new computer programs that will replace the services they used to use Minitel for. Dairy farmers especially found the service useful for everything from checking prices to tracking their livestock count. After using the same network for decades to do business, many of them are unlikely to switch to the Internet. Perhaps computer programs will eventually replace their beloved Minitel, but only time will tell.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: On the Farms of France, the Death of a Pixelated Workhorse
BBC News: Minitel: The rise and fall of the France-wide web
Independent: How France fell out of love with Minitel