The French Minitel

Is There Digital Life Outside of the "US ASCII" Internet?
A Challenge or Convergence?

Jack Kessler
San Francisco, California
[email protected]

D-Lib Magazine, December 1995

Mr. Kessler is currently at work on Digital Libraries: The International Perspective (Artech House, Fall 1996) on which this story is based. At our request, he has provided instructions on how to reach the Minitel and resources for learning more about the system.

1.0 Introduction

The French and their Minitel present several challenges to the Internet mind. The Minitel, like France and the French generally, is older, more centralized, more bureaucratic, and both less and more successful than the US and its Internet. In France the Internet, enjoying its fantastic growth there as elsewhere, is known as an "Anglo-Saxon" phenomenon: "perfidious Albion", the ancient enemy, somewhat, combined with Le De'fi Ame'ricain / the American Challenge of Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber's famous book [1967] -- a double threat, or the Internet as American / English creation, anyway. This is the key to understanding the French and their Minitel, particularly for those already under the sway of the Internet, and even more particularly if they are English or American: the French are outsiders, the first among many who now are embracing the new "Anglo-Saxon" technology, and a look at their very different Minitel just might provide a number of clues as to how these new "outsider" customers will think.

Among these numerous clues are several special features which the Internet already has anticipated. Multilingual access, such a great necessity in Europe, Asia, and Africa, is dealt with awkwardly still by the Internet, and is presented a bit more directly by the Minitel; but at least both systems address the issue. Commercialism, likewise, now is addressed by both: in sophisticated forms resulting from years of use, on Minitel, and in new and exciting but as-yet untested applications on the Internet.

"Foreigners" also are interested in some things, however, which the Internet has yet to address. Centralized control -- its political as well as its social and economic manifestations -- is relatively untested. Some fans of the Internet even deny the possibility of centralized control in their version of "Cyberspace". Yet such control is the single greatest issue of networked information to many Asians. Minitel's approach, which is so different from the Internet's celebrated de-centralized structure, provides useful comparisons for both systems to consider. Access by the general public, as well -- until 1995 not even of concern to the Internet, but a Minitel preoccupation from its beginning -- now looms large on the Internet agenda.

Many other questions could be added to these, questions which address the concerns of those who fear that the Internet will not "scale up" to the applications -- multilingual, multicultural, commercial, political, and "general public" -- which now confront it. Comparisons with the Minitel can provide object lessons in each.

2.0 Dirigisme: A Little Minitel history, and some details

There now are 7 million "Minitels" in France. They provide access to one in every five French households -- and to any French post office patron and to workers in most French offices -- to over 26,000 on-line services, ranging from computer dating and home banking and shopping to government services and library catalogs. The original "Minitel" was a little plastic TTY terminal with a slide-out keyboard, connected to a normal telephone line using a special "V23 bis" standard. These little "boxes", as they still are called, were distributed for free with normal telephone service by the government-owned France Telecom, beginning in 1982. Since then other hardware models have developed, now including sophisticated desktop computer versions and even a laptop. Free, and freely-copiable, Minitel terminal emulation software also has been distributed globally by France Telecom for years now, so that to the established plant of 7 million "Minitels" actually have been added several million additional access points. Commercial providers also have added to the total with enhanced emulation programs. As with the Internet, no-one really is able to compute the number of Minitel "users": if there were 10 "users" per "Minitel", as some Internet use figures have claimed per Internet "host", Minitel's global reach now would far exceed that of the Internet. But, whatever the actual total is of Minitel users, at well over 100 million hours per year of precisely-tabulated connect-time, Minitel unquestionably is a major factor in networked information.

Minitel very much has been the creation of the French national government. Like the Internet, which grew from US Defense Department initiatives and funding, the Minitel was a response to a need perceived by government for some national role for networked information. In the French case, though, the role was non-military. From the beginning, the Minitel was seen as a tool of strategic social policy in France: a means not of waging war, or defending against it, but of promoting a particular vision of French social and political interaction -- one blessed, over German and other competition, with the advantages endowed by computerization and networked information.

The initial mechanism for promoting this social vision was crude but effective. France Telecom, the government-owned national telephone service, and Alcatel, France's largest electronic equipment manufacturer, infrastructure: the former the system and content, the latter the hardware in quantities sufficient to be distributed at very low cost or for free. The initial "marketing strategy" adopted was to load the national telephone directory onto the system. Then, although official history does not appear to have recorded it, conventional wisdom in France has it that it become "very difficult" for a couple of years to obtain a copy of the printed version.

Sex first became an attractive online offering, and the era of dominant on-line sexchat known as "Minitel Rose" was entered. By 1995, however, both "Minitel Rose" and even the on-line telephone directory had receded in importance. Over 26,000 services are offered now: everything from government information to library catalogs to train and airline reservations to retail goods selling -- one can do research, read poetry, shop for a motorcycle, and find a baby-sitter, all via commercial and billed services on the Minitel, much as Internet promoters now are hoping to provide this range of activities on the Internet.

Numerous services in France, moreover, have chosen to bypass the convenient and cost-saving France Telecom "kiosk" billing system, and simply use telephone lines to connect users' Minitels with their own "alpha-mosaic" interfaces and services: dozens of library catalogs may be reached this way. So, as with the number of Minitels, the number of services accessible from the Minitel is significantly understated.

Minitel also connects to numerous other similar "videotex" systems, both French and foreign-owned, and France Telecom maintains local points of presence -- local telephone numbers which may be dialed for Minitel access -- in most major world cities. For some years, users have been able to reach Internet e-mail from the Minitel, and for the last few years, the Boston-based Delphi service has offered full Internet connections -- e-mail, ftp and telnet -- on its Minitel service 3619USNET. In 1995, the reverse became true as well: telnet, , and, (the latter for information only so far -- it has no telnet client service yet) both became points of access for reaching the Minitel from the Internet. Even Microsoft's new Windows95 software comes equipped with a Minitel terminal emulation package, supplied by one of the French commercial providers mentioned above.

3.0 The User's Minitel Today

The resources which users can find gradually have become the most important aspect of any on-line service. There was a time, not long ago, when the actual systems themselves were fascinating enough -- when it was sufficient to say that information could be stored, retrieved and used via computers and telephone lines -- to pique a user's interest. But information technology was a new thing then, and those were users who were interested in the technology per se. The great difference now -- certainly for the Internet -- is that the new "general public" crop of users largely is too busy to be interested in the systems technically, or simply is not interested in technology in any form. No longer "process", but "content", is the information technology byword. But this long has been the case for Minitel. As Minitel's original target was the general public, its content always has been aimed at the disinterested user, a user whom the Internet only now, in fits and starts, uncomfortably is beginning to court.

The key to managing vast quantities of information -- on the Minitel, on the Internet, or for that matter in print or anywhere else -- is meta-information: indexes, abstracts, the entire superstructure of tools designed to help a user locate and use other information. On the Minitel, these tools are simple, hierarchical, and abbreviated in the extreme. The primary research tool is France Telecom's own MGS/Minitel Guide des Services, a simplified indexing service which groups short descriptions and addresses of currently over 19,000 of the available services into a list of several dozen categories, and many more sub-categories. The searching algorithm is simple Boolean, with some toleration for spelling errors, but it permits no deliberate truncation, and provides no term frequency ranking, probabilistic search and feedback, and other sophisticated mechanisms now common to similar search engines on the Internet. The result, for Minitel, is large retrievals, and a constant wading-through of tiers of classifications. For example, a search for "bibliotheque" finds all of them, plus a couple of layers of geographic sub-classifications which must be worked through. Of course, this is still better than some Internet search engines, which, prompted for the keyword "library", return acres of references to computer programming.

Another fundamental problem which this simple indexing causes for Minitel is a common limitation of any meta-index list: if the indexer hasn't thought of the descriptive term, or has chosen a different term, the user finds the entry only by exhaustive searches for synonyms -- for some years, the term "bibliotheques" retrieved nothing, even though there were "bibliotheques" on the system. The coverage of MGS also is only partial: currently 19+ thousand out of what some accounts say now includes 26+ thousand services. Additions to the list of entries are made manually, not by the near-magical Cyberspace updating techniques employed by Internet gophers and Web servers, so as with any manual list, Minitel's MGS sacrifices currency somewhat for standardization and accuracy.

Cross-referencing, finally, appears not to exist in MGS. The item which a user seeks either is a library or it is not: no appearance ever is made by the indexer's useful although at times confusing "but see", "see", or "see also" references, or their surrogates.

Does it work, though? Does MGS serve its target clientele, the general public Minitel user? This is a question which also might usefully be asked of various indexing schemes under development now for the Internet. The Internet already has indexes, and meta-indexes, and meta-indexes of meta-indexes: a user now can search on engines which search engines which search engines which search the Internet -- an activity several orders removed from the task which the user actually wanted to undertake in the first place, and a degree of removal which always is a danger in any kind of research.

Such layered meta-index searching, furthermore, is made visible on the Internet, to the confusion of many of the newer users. Much of what goes on in Internet searching is behind the scenes. WAIS searching, for example, appears to have been successfully integrated into several Internet search engine formats, so that the user at most is told that a WAIS search is taking place, if in fact the user is told at all that WAIS is involved. Still, though, most Internet searching currently shows the user layer upon layer of its internal operations -- which meta-index is searching what meta-index is consulting what index to find the references sought -- which is a good thing for users who are fascinated by the beauties of information technology and retrieval, but is not a good thing for the growing group of general users who either don't have time for or just don't care about all of that.

The sophistications of Internet meta-indexing, particularly as misguided efforts still are made to reveal its internal workings to the user, in fact may do nothing more than create the illusion of information overload. For the growing group of general public users, the simplicity -- the simplistic hierarchies -- of Minitel's MGS may be enough. (Ultimately the best solution, for the disinterested user, would be a combination of both: a combination of the sophistication of Internet meta-index searching with at least the apparent simplicity of Minitel's MGS, and with the inner workings and strategies of the search engines deliberately made invisible to users who aren't interested in them.)

4.0 Minitel-Internet?

In addition to its enormous installation of Minitels, large and increasing Minitel usage, and positive Minitel cash flow (albeit, in this last case, only after a decade of "startup" losses), France now boasts one of the world's more significant growth curves in Internet usage.

With 113,974 hosts in July 1995, France ranked 7th in the world in host connectivity outside the US, after the UK, Germany, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Japan [ -- the US case, and a growing proportion of the overseas case, are distorted by inconsistencies in the assignment of ".org", ".net", ".com", ".edu", and ".net", in international cases]: this for a nation of only 58 million people [] and which only a few decades ago possessed a telephony system reputed to be among Europe's worst. Even more important than total numbers, France's recent increase in Internet hosts -- 615% in three years -- makes it one of the more significant foreign markets and competitors to watch, as the Internet expands and "scales up and out" from its US base.

Minitel is expanding as well. The greatest practical difficulty has been the slowness of the system. Minitel originally was designed with the lowest common denominator human typist in mind: normal people do not type very fast, and some sacrifices in typing efficiency were made in the design of the original Minitel keyboards -- so it was thought that a moderate typing speed of only 75bps would be enough for original Minitel output. This was balanced against a comparatively lightning-like speed of 1200bps for input, to produce a Minitel performance speed which increasingly became embarrassingly slow, as public networking telecommunications standards rose through 2400bps, 4800bps, 9600bps and 14,400bps, to the current 28,800bps and ISDN speeds of 56kbps and 64kbps.

Minitel has upgraded. Modems in France are more expensive than they are in the US -- about double, like everything else in computer hardware -- but they now are plentiful, and they run at the same 28,800bps speeds. More importantly, for Minitel, France Telecom switching equipment located throughout the country, which was set to handle only the old, slower, standard, now has been upgraded to handle higher speeds. ISDN is generally available in France now -- the simplest connection involves a stiff installation charge but only US$60 per month for operations -- unlike ISDN in the US, where it still largely is experimental and oriented only toward commercial users. Also, general public user ISDN applications, although new, already are available for the Minitel. Minitel does now face the "question of cable" -- 10 megabit per second speeds which will dwarf current telephone connectivity possibilities, and "set-top boxes" which may or may not be computers -- but in this it is no different from the Internet: both are "services", and neither really needs to rely on particular hardware, software, or even connectivity media.

So Internet and Minitel both are expanding, and users on both systems can communicate back and forth with increasing ease. The question becomes, what will become of this meeting of the two: how will the two combine, or will they?

This question is seen at first glance, and perhaps understandably, in competitive terms. "Which will bury the other?" is the Minitel/Internet question first asked both by French technocrats and by their US Internet marketer counterparts. There is a history to this competitive attitude. It extends back to recent "protocol wars" which supposedly took place between European "OSI" and American "tcp/ip" advocates [Peter H. Salus, "Protocol Wars: Is OSI Finally Dead?", in Connexions, August, 1995, v.9 n.8, p.16]: wars, or at least tensions, which still rankle in the minds of some European networkers. But it goes back farther, to the jealousies and trans-Atlantic bickerings addressed in Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber's book about the 1960's, and thence even farther, through several hundred years of US-European rivalry, jealousy, and competition, years which have been usually friendly, occasionally fierce, and on a few occasions even warlike. Minitel /Internet combination issues are not new, but are part of a large and very old set of issues in US/European relations.

There is, however, at least one factor in this supposed Minitel / Internet competition which is both very new and very particular to the technical medium that both systems represent. "Convergence" -- of technique, of equipment, of strategies and approaches and applications -- increasingly is being seen as the outstanding characteristic of the next phase of digital information's development. There is much talk now, at industry trade shows, in Internet and computing literature, and on-line generally, of an imminent blending -- labeled "convergence" -- of heretofore-different approaches in hardware and software and interface design, of methods of telecommunications access, of strategies and approaches in marrying users with systems. Such "convergence" no doubt would be temporary, even if it does occur: digital information and networking so far, in their short lives, already have been through several cycles of explosive variety followed by temporary consolidation. But the industry appears to feel that another period of consolidation is about to arrive. It might be useful to conclude here with an observation on how the Internet/Minitel confrontation might shed light on a general digital information and networking "convergence" which many feel is about to occur.

5.0 Convergence and the Future Matrix: Through a glass, very darkly....

The outstanding characteristic of the Internet's current development phase is its opening to the general public. The "academic test-bed" phase firmly is over, and an era of "lowest common denominator users" and "commercial applications" just as firmly has begun. Government-funded abstract research Internet projects are being eclipsed in size now by commercial Internet venture capital investment (US$5 billion for the first nine months of 1995, by one account, with US$1 billion of it in California alone). Supercomputer applications already have been replaced by World Wide Web browser development. This is all new territory for Internet networkers: among them there is much concern -- and many misgivings -- as to whether their Internet will be able to scale "up", or "down", to the "general public".

The Minitel represents the exact opposite of the traditional academic Internet, but the opposite to which the Internet now ironically is being led by its own internal development dynamic. General public access, with commercial applications and terrible political and legal questions of the necessity for and dangers of centralized censorship and control: this is the Minitel already, and it is the "general public" user world toward which the Internet now is careening. The Minitel certainly could profit from some of the indexing sophistication and general technologies of the Internet. Internet Web pages already are beginning to resemble -- in their simplicity, pictorial orientation, and increasingly "sales and marketing" approach -- the previously much-scorned "alpha-mosaic" cartoon-like interface screens of the Minitel.

There is much possibility here for "convergence" -- also for duplication of effort and the re-inventing of wheels. The Internet, no doubt, will wish to market to the "general public" somewhat differently than the Minitel did. Minitel may want different techniques than those which it sees in the current Internet, and it may simply be snuffed out by overwhelming Internet competition, the latest "American Challenge". The true test in "scaling up and out" of either, though, ultimately will come in Asia, where there are far more users, increasingly as much technical capacity and expertise, and now far more money, for digital information and networking, than there are in the US and Europe combined. The question for networking's next generation is what will scale up for Asia? To meet this challenge, some "convergence" -- some pooling of talents and approach, combining the sophisticated with the simple, the academic with the commercial, the decentralized and chaotic with the centralized and bureaucratic and controlled -- might not be such a bad idea for both the Internet and the Minitel to pursue now.

* * * * *

To reach the Minitel:

In France, any local France Telecom office will have an array of hardware models from which to choose: they are standard equipment with any telephone service, as they (still) contain the telephone directory -- charges are added to your monthly telephone bill, and a "facturation de'taille'e" may be requested which will show their breakdown. For the casual visitor to France: ask, in any hotel or office and in most homes, for the "Minitel" aka "l'annuaire" aka "la boi^te" -- the "Minitel Guide des Services" is the most useful starting place (enter "MGS"). If you would like to use your laptop: the FNAC stores offer a range of commercial "Minitel-emulator" software packages, or you could try the one which comes with your Windows95.

In North America:

a) telephone (voice) 1-800-MINITEL and request the form, which they will fax to you, which will give you free software and an account, charges for which will be billed to your credit card; or,
b) telnet and follow the instructions which you find there; or,
c) and follow the instructions which you find there.

From other countries, outside of France and not in North America:

Minitel has at least a local POP / Point of Presence (local telephone number) which your laptop can dial in order to reach the service, located in most major world cities. Local Telekoms / telephone companies may know of these and may in fact have their own videotex service which connects to Minitel: if they don't and even if they do, you might try the North American connection alternatives listed above, at least to get started and to get the full picture.

To Learn More about the Minitel:

For 2.0 Dirigisme: a little Minitel history, and some details

Le colbertisme "high tech": _economie des Telecom et du grand projet / Elie Cohen. -- [Paris] : Hachette, c1992.

Marchand, Marie. Minitel (Paris: Larousse, 1987)

Perier, Denis. Le dossier noir du minitel rose (Paris: Albin Michel, 1988)

France. Direction ge'ne'rale des te'le'communications. Les paradis informationnels: du minitel aux services de communication du futur (Paris: Masson, 1987)

Tavernier, Christian. Les secrets du Minitel (Paris: E.T.S.F., 1985)

Tolila, Paul. Minitel et vidotex (Paris: Ed. Hommes et techniques, 1985)

Comminove; Institut supe'rieur des sciences, techniques et e'conomie. Le commerce e'lectronique: te'le'vision, ou minitel : les nouveaux vendeurs (Paris: Chotard, 1989)

Te'le'tel I. Antiope. Les De'buts du Minitel; Te'le'tel II. Minitel : 1983-1985; Te'le'tel III. Minitel : 1986-1989; Te'le'tel IV. Minitel : 1989-1991 (Paris: Bibliothe`que Publique d'Information, 1989)

Kessler, Jack. Electronic Networks: A View from Europe. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science. Volume 20, Number 4. p.26-27 (April, 1994) ISSN: 0095-4403

Kessler, Jack. French libraries online -- electronic Hachette? The Electronic library. Volume 12, Number 2. p.79-88 (April, 1994)

For 3.0 The User's Minitel Today

Cats-Baril, William L. The French videotex system Minitel : an example of the critical success factors to establish a national information technology infrastructure (Fontainebleau, France : INSEAD, 1992)

Deutsch, Richard. Guide pratique d'acces aux banques de donnees : trouver l'information avec votre minitel ou votre ordinateur (Paris : Ed. du Dauphin, 1992)

Odier, Antoine. Le Micro communiquant : Fax-Minitel- Messagerie vocale et ecrite-Groupware (Alleur, Belgium: Marabout, 1994)

Pigot, Thierry. Minitel et PC (Paris: Armand Colin, 1991)

Reynaud, Philippe. Minitel et micro par la pratique (Paris: Sybex, 1992)

Les Applications Minitel-fax et audiofax: e'tude documentaire, janvier 1993 (Paris: A jour, 1993)

Tavernier, Christian. Montages autour d'un Minitel (Paris: ETSF, 1994)

Le Minitel : l'E'criture au bout du fil (Milan: Mikadoc, 1992) nov.92, n.109

For 5.0 Convergence and the Future Matrix: through a glass, very darkly..

Gilder, George. Telecosm: Wires to Waves. in Forbes (June 05, 1995)

George Gilder is prolific, and very influential in the US now. This article is one of a series which he writes for Forbes. He is an optimist about the ability of the technology to scale up, and about the capacity of current infrastructure to handle information explosions.

Levy, Pierre.

1) L'Intelligence collective : pour une anthropologie du cyberspace (Paris : Eds. La Decouverte, 1994).

2) Les technologies de l'intelligence (Paris : Ed. du Seuil, 1993).

3) La machine univers : creation, cognition et culture informatique (Paris : Eds. La Decouverte, 1992)

Pierre Levy is controversial, if not yet influential, in France, and a very intriguing writer on questions concerning convergence and the future. He might best be termed, certainly by comparison to the ebulliently-optimistic American, Gilder, a French sceptic -- or perhaps an agnostic -- about Cyberspace.

Lynch, Clifford.

1) Interoperability: The Standards Challenge for the 1990s. Wilson library bulletin. Volume 67, Number 7 (March, 1993) ISSN: 0043-5651;

2) in The Electronic library : international videoconference / presented by OCLC and its regional networks ; producer/director, Mattandlish. Columbus, Ohio : Mills/James Productions, c1994. 1 videocassette (120 min.) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in.;

3) in Networked information and the scholar / Indiana University Radio & Television Services. Bloomington, IN : Indiana University, 1994. 2 videocassettes (240 min.) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in;

4) The Transformation of Scholarly Communication and the Role of the Library in the Age of Networked Information. The Serials librarian. Volume 23, Numbers 3-4. p. 5-20. 1993

Clifford Lynch provides one of the most fertile minds and, tirelessly, some of the most eloquent public presentations in the field, and he is becoming an acknowledged expert on the expansion of digital information -- or on the problems which will attend its expansion -- on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a little more pessimistic -- or perhaps more cautious and realistic -- than either Gilder or Levy.
Copyright © 1995 Jack Kessler

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