27 March 2011

La Nostalgie: Le Minitel

Yes, I own albums by Gainsbourg and Brassens, and I know by heart more Trenet songs than I can count; yes, I do sometimes visit the shopping mall in Plaisir, and I pay for my purchases with a Carte Bleue. But while watching the documentary show “50 Years That Changed the Way We Live” the other night, the really personal burst of nostalgia for me came when I saw the humble Minitel.

Originally intended as an electronic replacement for the telephone book, the Minitel was distributed free of charge upon roll-out, in 1982, and it quickly became a forerunner of a personal computer on a primitive version of the Internet. Using a dial-up modem, charged to your phone bill, you’d connect to the Minitel universe, where you could (and still can!) look up the information you sought: store hours, train schedules, ticket prices, and so on.*

Soon, almost every company and organization in France had a Minitel number, most of which were prefaced with the figures “36 15.” Minitel has the capacity for chatting and mail, too, and for on-line shopping with payments made by credit or bank card. Thus, the French were actively on-line even before the World Wide Web turned the rest of us into screen-addicted zombies.

Minitels are still in use, though I never see them anywhere.
The home page for Ségolène Royal, Socialist candidate for President in 2007:
As I say, the graphics aren’t state-of-the-art.

The ugly little Minitel boxes were meant to be portable — on most models, the keyboard folded up for easier storage — because if you left it hooked up, then you couldn’t use your telephone. The Minitel wasn’t supposed to replace a word processor, and I’m not sure I ever saw one that hooked up to a printer.

The Minitel’s screen wasn’t designed to display photos; instead, your programmer could put up a sort of computer cartoon, much like a Lite-Brite image. (At first, the screen was chalkboard green-black, the letters white, but well before the Minitel declined, a wider range of colors became available.) Because you couldn’t see clearly what a purchase item looked like, it was hard to shop on-line — but some French people tried it anyway, especially for things such as air and rail tickets.

Tout de même, these were minor annoyances! They’d all be addressed in time! The possibilities of the new technology seemed endless, and for several years, the Minitel’s success seemed guaranteed. Surely everybody in the world would start using one!

The French were so confident that, Tortoise-and-Hare-style, they lagged behind in other telecommunications innovations — and that’s why I’m posting this from a Mac.

This is the Magis, the basic model in the latest Minitel line.

*NOTE: The one time I ever used a Minitel, I got information about a play I wanted to see. I found the process exhausting: it would have been easier to walk to the Théâtre de Ville and ask in person. On the other hand, this was back in the day when I didn’t know how to use the Web, either. It would be interesting to compare the two systems, now that I’m (slightly) more tech-savvy.

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