On Saturday, one of the precursors of the world wide web is set to go dark. After three decades of providing the French with an online service for making train reservations, looking up phone numbers or even engaging in cyber sex, the Minitel service is set to close.
The Minitel system used terminals, featuring a text based screen, keyboard and modem connected to a landline. Millions of the terminal were given away free, ensuring a wide take up of the service, which resulted in a dot com-like explosion in companies offering Minitel services.
At its height, there were around 26,000 companies offering services over the system, generating over €1bn in annual sales for France Telecom.
Minitel was, in some ways, a quintessentially French take on the web, being designed by the French for the French. Sadly, falling numbers of users – presumably attracted to the borderless world of the modern internet – and dwindling revenues have meant Minitel has become uneconomic.
While the system may end up as little more than a footnote in the history of the web, it provided an unerring model for many of the technology advances that would ultimately surpass it.
Following its introduction in 1982, the Minitel was responsible for a very dot-com like technology bubble – as thousands of copycat services sprung up, attracting bucket loads of cash, before wilting away. Similarly, its business model – where online services paid a portion of their revenues back to the operator foreshadowed Apple's AppStore business model.
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