The Minitel– A Love Story


Like most people, I have this thing for antiquated technology, for DOS prompts and floppy disks, the crackle of a modem. My favorite trick for years was scratching or blowing onto a receiver to kick my brother off the internet. 28.8, 33.6, 56; these are sacred numbers.

For Into It this week, I researched the Minitel, a machine that has long been France’s gateway to information. The system is proprietary and limited, but take one look at the machine and tell me you wouldn’t use one. These plastic bricks have been in use in France since the 80s, but in June of 2012 the service will be cut off for good.

The Minitel was not just a French contraption, but something adopted in a more limited way across Europe and as far away as Japan. For a brief period of time the Minitel was even tested in the U.S., but user-friendly services like AOL beat them out.

Now we say goodbye to the Minitels we never learned to love. At the least we can give a tip of the hat, a solemn nod, and a nostalgic smile as the keyboards are folded up and all of France begins to say “Now what do we do with these things?”

The transcript is below, and you can listen to the audio [by clicking here].

France Telecom recently announced their intentions to pull the plug on what has been the communications hub of French homes since the early ‘80s. Minitel terminals, which resemble antiquated Apple computers, will become the latest old-world victim of technology’s forward rush.

But this text-based, modem-dialing machine hasn’t gone without a fight. In the ‘90s, while Americans stocked up on personal computers and moved online, France stayed the technological course with the Minitel’s simple text interface, and not without reason.

With a few clicks and clacks of a Minitel keyboard, users can tap into an electronic phone book, make secure bank transactions, or book a train ticket. It has proven a reliable tool and created profit with everything from battleship video games to adult services. Crafty users have found ways to chat first through dialogue boxes of video games and eventually some of the first commercial chat rooms.

The Internet has long threatened to wipe out these plastic workhorses, but their time has finally come. Minitels, despite their charm, are blocky and industrial. They will be neatly stacked in closets, gingerly tucked under beds, and collect dust with dignity. Soon, within a year, the Minitels of France will pass the buck and power down for good.

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