Minitel: Welcome to the Internet

Minitel: Welcome To the Internet

In the 1980s, when a “consumer-facing Internet” was still over a decade away, France’s Minitel system introduced French citizens to much of what they’d be doing on the Internet years later. Despite being centrally planned, its architectural combination of central control and some distributed/market-incentive features resulted in a lot of innovation and serve to test the hypothesis that only a fully-decentralized free-market Internet could have succeeded.

A central theme of the work is that unlike other implementations of videotex (e.g. the British) where content production and distribution were integrated in a proprietary system, Minitel controlled the client and network architecture but content distribution (e.g. apps) was separate, enabling a combination of free market and centralized control, not unlike the iPhone’s App Store thirty years later.

France Telecom distributed free Minitel terminals to anyone who wanted them; they were essentially smart terminals with 80x24 grayscale monitors that could also display over 300 Latin-1 glyphs as well as low-res graphics by using “semi-graphic” character glyphs (in practice, these were realized on a 2-column by 3-row grid per glyph), PSTN direct-connect modems (by default, 1200 baud down and 75 baud up, but this could be changes in software), and a chiclet keyboard. An optional smartcard reader could let the terminal function as a POS system (at a time when US retailers still used paper credit-card imprint slips) or run software from a smartcard. Clever hackers figured out how to use the terminal’s modem with PCs to create one-off BBS networks, but the mass market more or less used the device as shipped.

While clients were universal, servers were not. France’s X.25 “Transpac” packet network required providers to purchase X.25 modems and use computers that could run the protocol stack. Regional exchanges connected PSTN modem banks to Transpac and also hosted several “baseline” apps such as a user-facing directory service, a database of known Teletel services, and the routing of “short codes” (4-digit codes that Minitel users typed in to connect to a specific service; these were often on billboard and magazine ads) to the correct app in some faraway ops center.

Depending on the app, the server computers could run videotex servers or text-menu-based apps that just used the terminal’s text mode. (Indeed, Minitel is pretty much the only widely-used deployment of videotex.) Any charges for using apps appeared on the user’s phone bill, with France Telecom getting a piece of the revenue.

Sociology and technology