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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 07:10 GMT 08:10 UK
France's Minitel: 20 years young

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Minitel terminal
State of the art, in 1983 and today

The history of the internet is measured in dog years - if you've been using it for 12 months, you're an old hand; since the 1990s, and you're a veteran.

But as far back as 1983, a band of pioneers started using electronic networks to communicate, share information and work more efficiently.

No, not Silicon Valley geeks, nor US military scientists - but ordinary French people, long derided as the worst of technophobic old Europe.

Minitel, France's precursor to the internet, is 20 years old, and rumours of its demise have repeatedly proved exaggerated.

Indeed, Minitel may be about to come of age.

Lean and mean

Calling Minitel a proto-internet may be a bit of a stretch, but it is not far off.

Unlike the internet, Minitel is a closed network, based on the phone system of its owner, France Telecom.

Using one of its prehistoric-seeming terminals, users can access a labyrinth of proprietary content, all of it determinedly low-graphics and designed for speed.

It may be unlovely, but, says Christian Grezes, Minitel's marketing director, it's every bit as functional as the worldwide web.

"It's perfect for quick answers to little questions - phone numbers, train times, that kind of thing," he says.

"You get the first three minutes free, so most people just dip in and out."

For those who want to linger, there are at least 13,000 services now available, including instant messaging, news, horoscopes, games, shopping and classified ads.

Paper profits

This bustling network sprang out of a surprisingly mundane ambition - to save France Telecom money on printing phone books.

Christian Grezes
Mr Grezes reckons Minitel can shape the internet's future

Urged on by a government - then in control of the company - keen to give the country a technological jolt, France Telecom offered customers free electronic terminals to provide directory assistance.

In the spirit of experimentation, France Telecom set up a payment system, allowing clients to invoice Minitel transactions to their phone bill, and invited service providers to start providing content.

"The results was not what we expected at all," says Mr Grezes.

"We had assumed people might use Minitel just for administrative business - paying bills and so on. In fact, people developed all sorts of surprising ways of getting the most out of the system."

Minitel devised a little battleship game, for example - but discovered that clients were using the text line at the bottom of the page to chat.

From that discovery sprang Minitel's messageries conviviales service, which now accounts for almost one-fifth of its traffic.

Terminal decline?

That traffic, by the way, is massive.

At its peak, around 1997, there were more than six million terminals in use, and payments worth about $750m passed through the system - roughly equivalent in size to the entire US e-commerce market at the time.

The growing lure of the internet, and the clunkiness of the Minitel terminals, has since started a sharp decline in volume.

Only $500m-worth of business was done over Minitel last year, and users spent 47 million hours online, a slump of 19% year-on-year.

Old-style Minitel is huge - 4.8 million of the original terminals are still in use, and 32% of the population has access to the network - but there is increasing talk that its days are numbered.

Web to the rescue

This may be premature.

For a start, the rapid decline of Minitel via terminal is more than counterbalanced by growth in access via the web.

Minitel is becoming web-wise

More than four million people have downloaded an "emulator" version, i-Minitel, which runs on personal computers, and 120,000 have registered to receive Minitel via Wanadoo, France Telecom's internet service provider (ISP).

Web-based access is trickier for Minitel to quantify than minutes clocked up via terminal, but Mr Grezes reckons that Minitel alone now accounts for half the revenues of the average French ISP.

Et hop, Minitel!

Nor is this simply shoring up a failing franchise.

France Telecom hopes to prove that Minitel is not just the past of the internet, it's its future, too.

Mr Grezes reckons Minitel's fairly simple technology is ideally suited to the next generation of web-enabled devices - Minitel was the explicit model, for example, for i-mode, Japan's internet-style mobile phone service.

By the end of this year, Minitel is launching a GPRS version in France, which will run on high-speed Orange mobiles.

And a venture known as "et hop Minitel!" - roughly, "off we go, Minitel!" - is working on code to make Minitel content seamlessly compatible between web, terminal and other applications - thereby opening the way for use across a far wider range of media.

Safe and sound

Security is the network's other main selling-point.

Minitel is trusted not just because it is an integral part of French life, but because its closed network is guaranteed virus-free and hacker-proof.

French pharmacies use Minitel to bulk-order their drugs; mobile phone retailers register all new clients via the network.

France Telecom wants to use that trust to spread the e-commerce habit around other areas of French life.

One new venture for example, known as w-HA, is working on a scheme that will allow online payments to be made within two mouse clicks, and charged to the shopper's phone or ISP bill.

Bits and pieces

They may be on to something.

Minitel has been making a living charging small amounts of money for small amounts of data - a telephone number found, an amorous message sent - since the 1980s, and now the rest of Europe is starting to follow suit.

Late last year, BT in the UK and Ireland launched Click&Buy, a system that allows users to pay for content in little chunks, rather than signing up for all-you-can-eat deals.

Firstgate, the German company that created Click&Buy, has been running a similar system in Germany since 2000, and has signed up about 1,000 firms to provide content piecemeal.

By shifting the cost of these tiny transactions - 50 cents for a newspaper article, 2 euros for a smutty picture - onto phone bills rather than the credit cards so many Europeans mistrust, Minitel may have the makings of a killer application.

At this rate, Minitel looks like celebrating a great many more birthdays.



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