Minitel, France's Videotex telecommunication system, was introduced in 1981. It was implemented by France Telecom's Teletel network.
Minitel falls under an umbrella category of similar systems, which are rather elusive in terms of definition. There are numerous names for these types of technology that came into existence in the very early 1980's including Teletext, Videotex, or Viewdata. These terms are often used interchangeably and can often lead to confusion due to the fact that there were many different types of services offered as well as many different devices for information retrieval. The International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (CCITT) makes a more clear distinction. According to the CCITT, Videotex refers to two-way information services and Teletext refers to one-way services. Michael Tyler defined Teletext/Videotex as "Systems for the widespread dissemination of textual and graphic information by wholly electronic means, for display on low-cost terminals (often suitably equipped television receivers), under the selective control of the recipient, and using control procedures easily understood by untrained users." (Tyler) An analysis of this definition by Tyler's peers points out, "It is significant to note that with the exception of the term "electronic," the definition is medium free." (Tydeman 2) Research proves that indeed there were numerous mediums that all fell under this category. With world wide web as we know it today still in the works, these were attempts to create a network type of communication system. It was possible in some countries for broadcasting companies to create their own teletext networks. For example, in the United States the Corporation for Public Broadcasting even created a guidebook to help broadcasters start up their own transmissions. This clear distinction between message senders and message receivers (except for in chatrooms) is probably one of the main causes of this system's demise. Interestingly, in the guide Carey points out the ability of Teletext to target narrow audiences as a selling point. (Carey 33) In this way Teletext was able to bridge the gap between mass electronic media which had incredible circulation and print periodicals which could already focus their attention on specific audiences.
Users were provided with "more than 17,000 services through Minitel terminals" (Billington and Riis-Hansen 114), including: <br>
- National Telephone Directory
- This feature, which proved to be a crucial factor in encouraging mass Minitel usage, was "searchable nationally or within defined regions by name, address, telephone number or profession" (Jacobs 79). <br>
- News Reports [BBC CEEFAX teletext news system PICTURED] (Sigel 24)<br>
- 24-hour Electronic Mail [for sending personally addressed messages, Courtesy British Post Office, PICTURED] (Sigel 79)<br>
- Homework Help:
- Introduced in 1986, this feature gave students the opportunity to get online help from teachers for a specified period of time during the evening (Housel 44) <br>
- Medical Assistance: (Housel 44) <br>
- Information about Entertainment Events and Television and Radio Programs (Housel 44) <br>
- Train Schedules (Housel 44) <br>
- Job and Classified Ads (Housel 44) <br>
- Interactive Games (Housel 44) <br>
- Banking (Housel 44) <br>
- Grocery and Teleshopping (Housel 44)<br>
- Comparative Pricing (Housel 44) <br>
- Movie showtimes (listed as a service on downloaded emulator from minitel.fr)
- Traffic (listed as a service on downloaded emulator from minitel.fr)
- Weather (listed as a service on downloaded emulator from minitel.fr)
The Minitel Terminal
As has been mentioned before, there were a diverse selection of terminals available. There are some universal features that were required. All terminals need some type of display monitor, often monitors were built into the machines or the machines were meant to be used with separate televisions. All systems also require and interface for user input. Most systems featured a QWERTY keyboard although some broadcast teletext systems used a more simple device resembling a television remote control. In most cases terminals were meant to be low-cost, which is an interesting factor to consider considering the extremely high cost of personal computers.
There are definitely some interesting physical features of the Sematel model manufactured in France by LA Radiotechnique a sub-division of Philips Electronic Instruments, Inc.<br><br>
-One feature which highlights the overall design of the terminal is the rather odd power button. The button is integrated into the aerodynamic design, which helps to convey the message of modernity. After all the console does not move. Not only is the button well integrated, their is no indication that it is in fact the power button. This is completely counter-intuitive to a user-friendly interface, which the Minitel so vigorously boasted.<br><br> -Another thing to note about the terminal is its color. The color of the terminal alone almost immediately marks it around the time period of 1980. It's interesting to note how the color of what is perceived modern has changed over the years.<br><br> -The same type of observation can be made by the exaggerated lines of the molded plastic incasement, when compared to the popular American cars that would have been driven during the time of the Minitel's invention. This casing exhibits the striving attempts by Philips to make a modern looking product. This is a completely nonfunctional aspect of the terminal, but probably in some ways participated in its success. After all, it can't be the next best thing if it doesn't look the part.<br><br> -Another interesting feature of the console is its use of a number pad. It remediated the qwerty keyboard from the typewrite, a feature which is not necessary to its operation. However, it did not place the numbers across the top of the keyboard in the same manner. In this way the Minitel probably mimicked the telephone due to the necessity of dialing. This type of number pad lives on through most external pc keyboards, but is primarily hung on to, to provide ease in calculations.<br><br> -An important fact to take into consideration is that Minitel consoles were mono-function tools. They were only capable of carrying out one task, which was accessing the Minitel network. This sets them apart from personal computers which are now used to access the internet, and provides for safer information retrieval.<br><br> -The terminal also houses on its right side two dials, one which controls volume and the other which controls contrast. The volume is useful when connecting, however it serves no purpose once your already connected. The contrast dial seems completely useless. At its most efficient setting the dark of the screen contrasts to the white letters. When you turn the dial it makes the black brighter to a more grey color, using more power, and making the characters more difficult to read.
Minitel did not have what would be considered a graphic user interface. The look of the information displayed on the screen was simply a text interface. For Minitel, the font was standard throughout the machine, i.e. it was not an option to change the font style. The typeface was preset into Minitel to appear as the output. The input, e.g. when the user is conducting a search, is comparable to how the screen looks when entering commands into MS-DOS. Similar to other programs that run on the user's input, Minitel runs line by line instead of as a whole screen.
The "graphics" that did exist were rough and primitive according to today's standards. In fact, they were essentially text manipulated to appear like images. The pixels of a graphic image were often clearly seen as little squares. The lack of smoothness in the images is reminiscent of children coloring out of the lines. The simple images were not detailed either. One reason is the lack of the impression of depth in the images because of the limited colors.
In addition, the color scheme was limited to two colors: black and white. The colors ran on somewhat of a grayscale since they were not purely black and white. One interesting aspect is that the text is based on a dark on light scheme. This is typically seen when programming computer languages. However, dark on light, e.g. black text on a white background, is more widely used on the Internet.
Minitel Must Make Money
Kiosk Billing System
The kiosk tariffing system took effect in March of 1984, which involved France Telecom taking over the individual billing for different Minitel-based services. France Telecom would collect the users' money once every two months via telephone bills, and then pay out to the service providers for a percentage of the revenue (Rheingold 230). And because the kiosk bill came in the form of a lump sum payment that did not specify the specific services that were accessed, the anonymity of Minitel users remained in tact.
Under this model, one could access a given service by simply punching in a four digit code that represented a particular tariff band, such as 36 15, plus a corresponding word. “For instance, typing ‘36 15 MARIECLAIR’ would take you to the Minitel site of the magazine Marie Claire” (Jacobs 78). This tariff system allowed users to browse different services without having to pay a subscription fee to specific service providers, and since France Telecom took care of billing the users, the service providers were able to gain revenues from many short duration users without the expense of billing each user for each call (Housel 48-49).
Due to the implementation of this kiosk system, Minitel traffic was significantly increased, as demonstrated by the fact that the “total connect time in November and December of 1984 was 198,000 hours and 2.2 million hours for November and December of 1985” (Housel 49).
According to T.J Housel and W.H Davidson (52) in The Development of Information Services in France, the sources of revenue from the Minitel system include:
1. Fees from revenue sharing with information providers (through the aforementioned kiosk system)<br> 2. Advertising <br> 3. Electronic directory usage (that exceeds free time - The Minitel directory was free for the first three minutes of use) <br> 4. Rental of advanced terminals <br> 5. Savings from printing of directories and staffing directory assistance operators <br><br>
Marketing in the U.S.
- When videotex systems were to be introduced into the u.s. their was much dialogue about what rates could be charged for information access. A pamphlet on videotex prospects for the 80s is ceratin that business will pay for services which save time and energy. However, they inquire "Household spending, however is a big unknown...Will consumers spend an extra $10 a month for information and other services? Will they spend $20 or more?" The researchers acknowledge the rising popularity in pay-TV (aka cable) and home video games, as possible indicators that people would be willing to pay for these services(Nyhan 12).<br> - Another interesting charachteristic about the U.S. model, was that advertisement was much more emphasized. Would this have become a key elemant of videotex service if it was still alive today? Or does it's failure in the U.S. indicate that it functioned better when run less Democratically as it was in France?
The French Phenomenon
Minitel was strictly a French innovation because it did not spread throughout the world, or even to the rest of Europe. Its success was due to the culture of the French as well as the actions of France Telecom, which was owned by the government.
Minitel's input/output functions were carried out in the French language. French and other alphabet-based languages were efficient for use with Videotex systems. However, limits in resolution caused languages with intricate characters such as Japanese input (seen left) to function less efficiently (Sigel 122). This may be one reason why Videotex campaigns were not successful in certain countries, with complex alphabets. However, this doesn't fully explain why these campaigns weren't as successful in countries such as the U.S. and U.K. Regardless, it's certain that due to the fact that the French language was so closely associated with these technologies, Minitel gained a particular identity. The French regarded Minitel highly because it was the embodiment of their language, and to a great degree their culture.
Minitel's symbolic value lies in the fact that it was a product of France and not an import. This mindset regarding Minitel is influenced by France Telecom's general manager in 1974, Gerard Thery, who was known as "the product champion of Minitel." "Through careful planning, he put into place the resources, personnel, and teamwork to bring the new service to fruition. The results made France Telecom the first to market with the new service, which set standards in the electronics and telecommunication industries" (Billington and Riis-Hansen 124)
In addition, Minitel's network was implemented by the government. France Telecom, state-owned telecommunication monopoly, invested in test marketing in 1980 to learn about French society's response to the system. For their locations, "France Telecom initiated test markets in Velizy for videotex and in Ille-et-Vilaine for the electronic directory" (Billington and Riis-Hansen 118). The initial success was fueled by the French government's distribution of Minitel terminals for free. In 1982, France Telecom gave the terminals away free to gain acceptance by attracting customers. The terminals were soon expanded to include businesses, because the placement of terminals "in the home, at businesses, and eventually in public places made them familiar to the public and accelerated the acceptance of the system over time" (Billington and Riis-Hansen 123).
User friendliness was also a major factor in the success of Minitel. In fact, "Thery tried to keep the videotex product concept simple and rugged; it could become more complex over time. He opposed IBM's substantial presence in France in the areas of computers and telecommunication and its traditionally complex approach to data processing" (Billington and Riis-Hansen 117).
Security is a major concern with the use of networks. So another important aspect of Minitel is that "As a closed network it cannot be attacked by hackers or viruses" (Selignan). Minitel is viewed as a safe, secure medium to use. Many Minitel users do their shopping using Minitels rather than the Internet.
"Like the inefficient QWERTY keyboard layout created in the nineteenth century that blocked more efficient key placements, Minitel locked users into a relatively inefficient technology that nonetheless still served an extremely valuable function" (Trumbull 61). Interestingly, Minitel's input entries are typically done using a QWERTY keyboard. Does this make the Minitel even more ineffective?
Encoding and Decoding Process
Primitive Broadcast Medium Gains Full Two-Way Capabilities
It was originally believed that an information network like the Minitel would work primarily in the dissemination of just that – information. However, research consistently suggested that “the public might be more interested in specialized services and in communication than in information per se. Videotex trials in the U.S., and the French Minitel system, underscored the centrality of interpersonal and group communication to electronic networks” (Dutton 148).
This seemingly inevitable, yet accidental, path toward Minitel messaging capabilities was captured perfectly as its creation played out in the true story of Gretel, which was one of the first three test-services set up in France. According to Michel Landaret, the man responsible for Gretel:
We were running an experiment with a very small number of users, to determine whether professional associations and institutions would use data banks. The DGT [(General Telecommunications Administration)] had not focused on Minitel’s communication functions. What happened with Gretel altered the users’ relationship to the service in a crucial way. We had only a few dozen users who called into service. For research purposes, we monitored their usage. We could see how people new to the system could get confused and enter a series of ineffective commands. So we designed a system to communicate with those users by sending a message directly to their screen, and receive messages back from them, to help them learn how to use the system. One of our users just cracked that part of the system and used it to talk with friends. As soon as we found out what was happening, we made improvements on the service and made it a legitimate part of the system. They loved it (as quoted in Rheingold 227-228).
Based on the reaction from Strasbourg (where the Gretel service was located), one of the former executives for France Telecom, Henri de Maublanc, designed the user interface of system-wide chat service. “According to Maublanc, when he tried to explain to the architects of the Teletel system that their giant distributed database could be best sold as a communications systems, ‘they said I was crazy, it would never work, the entire idea is to deliver good information, not to deliver chat lines’” (as qtd by Rheingold 229-230). Therefore, what was originally imagined as a broadcast medium that limited its users to the position of receiver, was suddenly and undeniably established as a medium of two-way communication where everyone became both a sender and a receiver.
It is not uncommon for people to develop unexpected functions of a new medium as it develops and emerges into popular use. As in the case of the Minitel, that unforeseen capability or quality often becomes one of the primary functions of that new technology. As soon as the Minitel was established in 1982 as a means of computer mediated communication (CMC) between individuals or groups of people, there was an almost immediate explosion of sex-chat services, or messagerie rose (pink messaging). “Before long, it had become one of the main forces behind Minitel’s success, especially between about 1983 and 1987, by which year ‘pink sites' were clocking up staggeringly high usage figures” (Jacobs 81).
But what’s so strange about the popularity of such sex-chats is the fact that it was widely known by participants that the majority of the supposedly young women engaging in lewd conversations with male Minitel users were, in actuality, male actors that were paid to keep users online for as long as possible. In his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Fronteir, Howard Rheingold recounts the story of one such man by the name of Denis, a French actor whose day job was to pretend to be several women at a time via Minitel. Thanks to his first hand experience with messagerie rose, Denis was able to offer some insight as to why users would continue to participate in sex-chats with people they could assume, with a large degree of certainty, were nothing close to who they claimed to be. Rheingold states that according to Denis, most people “…were in it for nothing but the fantasy. It was a chance to step out of their normal identity and be superman or a beautiful woman and say all the things that they only think about in their most secret fantasies” (232). In other words, the minitel rose provided a new avenue for people to create another ‘self’ – a different identity than the one they put forth in their day-to-day lives.
How Denis and the like used the Minitel demonstrates exactly the beliefs of sociologist Erving Goffman, whose theories long predated the age of the telematique. In his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman described people as always being on stage, “always creating a persona that they project to one audience or another. Much of our lives, seen from Goffman’s perspective, consist of constructing responses in public that paint a certain public persona, and taking actions that live up to the image of the persona we present” (Rheingold 233). Therefore, people like Denis acted according to what they deemed appropriate in order to 'embody' a young woman in such a situation, while the person at the other end of the Minitel line was able to carry out a persona that he or she would never otherwise play out(at least not during face to face communication) with a perfect stranger.
However, despite the fact that messagerie rose participants were generally aware of the possibility of chatting with "false persons," there were some people who did not treat the minitel rose simply as a fantasy world. When a Parisian call-girl was brutally murdered after a meeting arranged through a sex chatline, the public was outraged and “several members of the French Parliament made speeches calling for the closure of sites promoting debauchery, bestiality, paedophilia and prostitution” (Jacobs 81).
But even with the strong denunciation of the minitel rose and the development and dissemination of a code of conduct, only Minitel services causing particular offense were disconnected from the system. Other services deemed degrading were simply dealt higher charges, and as late as 1992-1993, sex-chats mixed with ‘personal services’, such as horoscopes and the like, still accounted for nearly a quarter of total Minitel connect time (Jacobs 82). Not surprisingly, the less than stellar success of the French government to restrict the minitel rose was a result of “conflicting pressures [from] public demand and the maintenance of revenue: France Telecom had certain powers to crack down on sex chatlines but chose not to use them to the full in the face of a lucrative source of income” (Jacobs 85).
Pictured right is a Vinyl record which grabbed our attention while searching for a Minitel console on Ebay. This record advertised as rare was published in 2001 and incorporates Minitel into both song title. The titles "Sex on the Minitel" and "Man and Minitel" is an obvious reference to the messagerie rose which caused such controversy. We were able to locate a sample but not able to hear the full recordings, the lyrics we did here did not include references to Minitel. The appropriation of this communication medium in art, immortalizes Minitel as a cite for the battle of individual sexual expression. The reference to dead media object may also serve "the cool" of the record, as an obscure digital reference, which are often commodified by house music.
Homosexuality and Expression
Minitel was an outlet for individual expression. With access extended beyond inhabitants of cities, particularly Paris, individuals were able to communicate thoughts and feelings they may not have done in-person. "The success of the minitel in the gay community is largely due to the possibility of anonymous communication...The reason for its incredible commercial and social success lies in the urbanisation of sex" (Duyves 194).
Minitel revealed a realm with options available to the public that were never there before. So when Minitel was introduced "In 1983 the gay world suddenly realised what amazing opportunities the little machine offered for the making of personal and anonymous contacts. A change in sexual partner, the financing of services such as a gay radio station and help for AIDS sufferers, anything was possible" (Duyves 194). With anonymity comes a level of promiscuous behavior: "The French telecom has thus unwillingly give the go-ahead to the exchange of extremely risque messages among its clients, who are not infrequently underage' (Duyves 195). The ability to express personal thoughts also brought about abuse from others. Using the example of homosexual chatrooms, "gay haters" and even the police were involved in them during their various points in their widespread use.
French Resistance to the Internet
While France was the first country to establish a widely used information network in the form of the Minitel, the existence of such a system actually hindered the ultimate growth of the information revolution surrounding the Internet in France. When the Internet first made its way to France, it was met by a population that was already familiar and comfortable with the technology and functions of the Minitel, which was able to efficiently carry out many valuable services for its users. Because the majority of their needs were already being met, it created a situation in which the French had to be that much more convinced of the benefits of the Internet.
Similarly, the phenomenon known as Creative Destruction, as described by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, also worked to impede the emergence of the Internet in France. According to Schumpeter, “true innovation [is] nearly always destructive, because new products or procedures naturally threaten existing lines of business” (Trumbull 61-62). In countries without a previously existing network like the Minitel, the onset of the Internet predominately brought about advantageous opportunities “without challenging existing revenue centers. In France, by contrast, the Internet emerged as a competing technology for companies already earning profits through Minitel” (Trumbull 62).
Furthermore, the cultural stigma surrounding the Internet throughout the 1990s acted as a deterrent for its adoption in France. Whereas the Minitel embodied a vessel of French culture, the Internet was viewed "as a tool of American cultural imperialism, and accordingly the protection of France’s ‘Frenchness’ was used as sufficient reason for attempts, in the main unsuccessful, to set restrictions on Internet usage” (Jacobs 83).
-In 2000, France Telecom "launched "I-Minitel," a service that lets Internet subscribers visit Minitel sites" (Selignan). A year later, in 2001, "Yahoo began test-marketing services that enable Minitel users to go on the Internet and send and receive e-mail messages" (Tagliabue). Yahoo hopes to attract people to their services, so "Through 3615 Yahoo, a Minitel service launched in January for accessing and sending regular e-mail, Yahoo can get an idea of how many people are willing to pay for their e-mail. And thanks to the variable rates throughout the day, the company can theorize about how much customers are willing to pay as well" (Borzo). At roughly the same time, "Et Hop Minitel! (the name translates roughly as "And jump to Minitel"), was launched in early 2001 to provide connections in the opposite direction -- Minitel users can visit Web sites, with the material displayed on their terminals as simple text" (Selignan).
<br> -On a tip from a former employee of French magazine, Le Nouvelle Observateur, who was working on developing an English-language Minitel service our group attempted to connect the afore-mentioned Sematel model Minitel to still active French Minitel lines. http://www.minitelfr.com/Uk/divers/f_autres_info.html A Orange business services website, a subsidiary of France Télécom, offers instructions in English intended for enthusiasts in the U.K. to connect to the French Minitel service. Interestingly, these pages seem to have been updated fairly recently. The web page (shown left) for creating new accounts to access the service, indicate that since May 31, 2006 it is no longer possible to open a new account. Additionally, existing accounts would only be honored through the end of 2006. This incredibly recent abandonment of revenue seeking by Orange indicates that the French Minitel service, may finally be close to its death. The fact that these lines have stayed open for so long may be indicative of just how cheap the actual running of the system is.
Under the assumption the U.K. instructions would also work for U.S. enthusiasts, and armed with a sample user name and password, we plugged in our Minitel and dialed France. Upon pushing the ON/OFF LINE button, the machine sounded a dial tone, however as we punched in the numbers there were no corresponding tones. This could be a defect in the machine, or it's possible that the system is dial-pulse instead of touch-tone. This could present problems for us dialing from NYU where we need to push several extra numbers, 9 to dial out, the 011 international code, and a five-digit code superseding the number. These numbers most likely require a touch-tone system to function properly. I'm not sure whether the Sematel Terminal uses pulse or touch-tone technology. However, it's certain that for Minitel to be used today touch-tone would be necessary. Touch-tone technology, which assigns arbitrary pitches to each digit, certainly qualifies as functional nonsense. We also ran into several other dialing problems. The number of digits we needed to enter didn't fit in the display on the Minitel which fits 16 digits. This may or may not mean that they were still dialed. Lastly, the system requires a pause before the last five digits, which we were unable to insert because the space bar does not function in dialing mode. When we dialed from a standard telephone we heard fax machine type sounds which indicates that the system is most likely still functioning, provided we were able to dial it from a Minitel. The similarity in sound to the fax machine, indicates that the Minitel uses similar technology to transfer data over phone lines.
-It should also be mentioned that Minitel emulators, which still exist, may run on personal computers.
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