Minitel : From cutting edge to museum in just 30 years

Exactly 25 years ago the Riviera Reporter brought out a special number devoted to the Minitel, at that time rated as one of this country’s great technical triumphs, mentioned alongside the TGV and Airbus. “When it comes to technology,” we exulted, in adoptive cocorico mode, “France is second to none.” Ask a few younger folks about it today and they may simply look puzzled.

minitelIn brief, the Minitel was a (usually) grey or beige plastic box, distributed free by La Poste, which could receive information down a telephone line and later offer an interactive facility. Back in 1987 it already provided 4000 different services, ranging from weathercasts and healthcare tips through horoscopes and BBC news. There was an English service – Allotel – set up by former Antibes games room manager John Sweet (now long retired to Port Elizabeth, South Africa), which was much appreciated. As we noted, “The device has had an extraordinary success in France”; elsewhere it never really caught on.

Its popularity peaked around 2000 when there were some 23,000 services available and an estimated 25 million users. An attraction for some was the 3615 option which allowed interactive sex chats – though rather milder than what’s to be found today online.

And that last phrase indicates what killed off the Minitel. The coming of the PC with internet access made that little box seem old fashioned. Usage declined, first slowly, then more rapidly, and on Saturday June 30th, 2012 the remaining active screens went blank forever. There were still some ready to express regret. Said one local Brit, “It was simple to use, didn’t crash and there was nothing bad for kids.”