(B) Today after 30 years of services, the Minitel “nous tire sa révérence”. The 700,000 Minitel subscribers in France will not have access anymore to the first worldwide online service before the existence of the World Wide Web – Yes the WEB! From the 50s to the 80s, each of the major European countries had one network operator – France Telecom in France, Deutsche Telekom in Germany, Telefonica in Spain, British Telecom in the UK, Telecom Italia in Italy – supplying all telecommunication services to the whole nation with no competitor. As a result, those operators in particular France Telecom, Deutsche Telecom, and Telefonica enjoyed strong profitability, reinvested their cash flows into a state of the art network, building year-after-year the first SS7, X.25, ISDN, and optical networks. But they did not stop there! They heavily invested into their Labs and R&Ds, researching, not only new network architectures and new networking protocols, but also new consumer products that could expand their telephony services, and could be marketed to their subscribers.
In particular, France Telecom’s Lab called CNET (Centre National d’Etudes des Telecommunications) – France Telecom later changed its name to Orange and the CNET to Orange Labs – pioneered many inventions including first electronic switch Aristote in 1963, first geostationary telecommunications satellite in 1967, one of the first packet network Transpac in 1978, ATM packet switching technology in 1984, many new types of ISDN services, called Numeris, in 1987…The CNET was the Y Combinator of many of French technology start-ups that were directly spin-offs of the CNET like Stanford University has been the Y Combinator of Silicon Valley.
Among those inventions, the CNET pioneered the Minitel, the first online service before the Web. The Minitel did propose many services, such as booking a train ticket, checking bank accounts, looking for employment, even dating services known as “La Messagerie Rose”. All those services were developed over the years, and all have been re-invented for the Web. But the initial goal of the Minitel was to provide online telephony white pages services, and the Minitel terminal was given to France Telecom subscribers for free to save printing telephony directories. In 1995, the Minitel reached a peak of 20 million subscribers having access to 25,000 services.
The Minitel pioneered videotext services that are based on another invention, the Téletext which provides digital transmission of text pages, and is still being used today to display news information by French TV stations.
With the worldwide deregulation of telecom services, which started in Europe in the 90s, innovation has certainly slowed down among network operators, and it is very unlikely that Orange will market a new service like the Minitel ahead of its time in the soon future. That time is over.
Note: the picture above is one the early Minitels from France Telecom – Orange.
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