In Silicon Valley today, those who lived through the Minitel era tend to view it as the epitome of how not to build and operate an online system: They believe that letting the government design and run it just invited disaster.
In truth, Minitel was never fully controlled by the state.
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To the extent that it’s remembered today, Minitel is portrayed as a closed, centralized system encumbered by government bureaucracy that failed to change with the times.
But back in 1983 it was like nothing anyone had seen before, eventually growing to have more than 20,000 online services before the World Wide Web even got off the ground.
To kick-start the process, the PTT ordered millions of Minitel terminals (built by French manufacturers such as Telic-Alcatel and Matra) and made them available at no cost to everyone in the country who had a telephone line.
Anyone curious about the new system being promoted on TV could simply go to the post office and return home with a shiny new Minitel box.
It was a hybrid system—a public platform for private innovation. To initiate a connection, a user manually dialed a local gateway using a telephone handset.
The call, carried over the public switched telephone network, was answered by software running on the switch—typically a CIT-Alcatel E-10—which played an audible carrier signal back over the line.
It allowed ordinary people to obtain and share information online, launching the country into the digital age and leapfrogging the United States by more than a decade.
The story of how Minitel came to be is a fascinating but largely forgotten one.
Taken with Nora and Minc’s vision, the nation’s leadership began to lay the groundwork for France’s computerized future.
In 1983, on orders from the president, computer engineers within the Post, Telegraph & Telephone (PTT) ministry began to roll out throughout France a telematics system that came to be known as Minitel.
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