This Tiny Terminal Was France’s Version of AOL

A French telecom scheme to replace the phone book with a dumb terminal soon became the world’s first mainstream online network. Problem is, Minitel never really evolved past that point.

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Feb 10 2017, 2:00pm

Re-Exposure is an occasional Motherboard feature where we look back on delightful old tech photos from wire service archives.

When the internet went mainstream in the United States around 1995 or so, many of its benefits had already embedded themselves deep into French society—but not through the internet.

That was thanks to a fateful decision by France Telecom to replace the country's telephone books with a videotex-style system that could hold far more information than the actual books could. The resulting Minitel, first formulated in 1978 and distributed nationally starting in 1982, was a clever idea, years ahead of what the rest of the world was doing. In France, it essentially nationalized computer-based services and made them something the average citizen had access to.

Minitel quickly evolved beyond phone books, as well. The 1987 photo above, just as an example, shows a Minitel user looking up information during the annual Paris-Dakar Rally offroad race.

It was a clever and important idea, but its long-term potential was limited, in part because the French government, in an attempt to protect the media, only allowed registered newspapers to make services for the Minitel.

The most successful types of services were, of course, adults-only. A 2015 episode of the popular podcast Reply All highlighted how the Minitel effectively evolved to include some of the world's first text-based sex chat lines, under the Minitel Rose, or Pink Minitel, monicker. Because it was really easy to fake gender using a text-based sex chat, it meant many of the people paid to chat were men pretending to be women.

Minitel made a few people rich, but when a platform emerged that could allow anyone to create content without a license (AKA the internet), its days were quickly numbered.

"Basically, Minitel innovated from 1978 to 1982, and then it stopped," Benjamin Bayart of the French Data Network ISP told the BBC in 2012.

The idea was so innovative that it didn't die until roughly three decades after its launch. But, fortunately for everyone, the internet quickly surpassed it.

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