Paris Calling: Je veux mon Minitel

Tim Byars (
Fri, 27 Nov 1998 08:29:14 -0600

(more for Rob)

By Andreas Pfeiffer

Paris -- France is a funny place for the Internet. It may be the only
wired country where online marketers could learn from past experiences.

Thanks to the Minitel -- a well-known but relatively dumb teletext
terminal that France Telecom distributed for free 15 to 20 years ago -- a
lively online community has flourished here for years. Just about everybody
has a Minitel (modems without Minitel emulation don't stand a chance in the
market), and lots of services run reliably, albeit slowly, on the
antiquated technology. Online banking? I've done it for years. Shopping
from a virtual supermarket? An old hat. Reserving your plane or train
ticket online? Well, is there another reasonable way?

Minitel has many weak points -- plus a few strong ones. However boring it
looks when compared with "killer" Web sites, it is dead-simple to use, and
it is reliable and completely secure. Most importantly, it allows you to
make money easily: Minitel calls are taxed according to their nature,
anywhere from 30 cents to several dollars per minute. France Telecom adds
it on the phone bill, cashes the money and pays parts of it back to the
company that runs the site. This has spawned a healthy, if decreasing,
community of Minitel service providers (who, incidentally, would have a
hard time to find a viable business model on the Web).

For years now analysts have predicted that France will take off really
fast in the online world once people have switched, but that doesn't seem
to be happening. Sure, computer users are getting hooked on the Internet,
and ISPs are falling over themselves to provide cheap and attractive
offers, sometimes even throwing in a fast modem practically for free. So
you'd think that services on the Minitel would be migrating like crazy.
Well, sorry to disappoint you, but that doesn't seem to be happening. When
I want to look up a phone number, where do I go? My Minitel. When people
look for a used car, a plane ticket or the quantity of snow at a ski
resort, Minitel does the trick better, faster and more reliably.

I'll probably receive a flood of angry e-mails for what I have just
written, but as far as I can see this decade-old technology still hasn't
reached redundancy, and it shows us how many limitations of the Web -- from
an average user's point of view -- we hardly notice. Of, course, I
absolutely couldn't live without the Internet. I love the Web, and I really
don't care about the Minitel. The only problem is that the Web still
doesn't give me what I get from Minitel.

Sort of makes you think that there are several ways to wire a cat. Contributing Editor Andreas Pfeiffer spent 10 years as editor
in chief of Paris-based SVM Mac, one of Europe's leading Mac periodicals.
He is currently an industry analyst and editor in chief of the Pfeiffer


Go sell crazy somewhere else, we're full up here. ...Nicholson

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