Goodbye Minitel

1982 Minitel Terminal

Minitel 1, 1982
Wikimedia Common File Photo
Photograph by Tieum

While I share the sadness of the end of the Space Shuttle program, the coming end of another technology program, Teletel, with which I had some involvement also saddens me. Teletel was deployed by France Télécom in 1982. They just announced that they will terminate the program in about a year. During what I think of as the heart of my professional career I worked for a company that provided modem chips in the millions for Minitel terminals and Teletel infrastructure. Minitel was and is the name of the Teletel terminal.
France Télécom first deployed the system to provide an online, lower cost, substitute for printed telephone directories. But services like mail order, public transportation ticket purchase, database access and message boards were soon added. The terminals were free but many services were billed on the per minute basis. A friend reminded me at lunch yesterday that among the fee based services was pornography (text only!), one of the major drivers of the late twentieth century technology market. The Minitel modems were half duplex with the down link at 1200 bps and the up link at 75 bps. We tried, unsuccessfully, to convince France Télécom to upgrade to 9600 bps and use our popular fax modem technology. With extremely limited character based graphic capability, they really didn’t need it.
The system or something like it was introduced in several other countries, there was even a movement to introduce a Mintel system in the United States but it never got significant traction outside of France. Most of us enjoyed the Minitel business. The occasional trip to France provided welcome contrast to the relentless travel to Japan where the majority of our fax and computer modem customers had their headquarters.

2 thoughts on “Goodbye Minitel”

  1. Is it me – or do the keys have a non-standard layout?
    I just read today in “Guns, Germs and Steel” that typewriters were purposefully designed to be slow to use because of the unfortunate fact that keys next to each other that were pressed in rapid succession tended to jam up. So the lovely folks who made typewriters came up with a qwerty system to force people to type slower, and most of the important letters with their left (usually non-dominant) hand. I just had to share that with someone.
    I wonder how much more efficient the Minitel was, or if it was even intended to be…

  2. Matt,
    The Minitel AZERTY keyboard is the standard French keyboard as adopted in France and Belgium and a few other places. But the Canadian French and the Swiss French keyboards, for example, are QWERTY based. The reason for these differences are beyond me but they do go back to the end of the 19th century. If you’d like, you can get a keyboard driver for this standard.

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