Thirty years of Minitel: and after?
The adventure of the Minitel is a singularity in the evolution of telecoms and information technologies: an unexpected innovation in the long calm river of the evolution of telecoms. Funny idea indeed, in 1979, to want to create ex nihilo a system of consultation of text database, moreover interactive and popular, using a French telephone network then in full renewal!
This is a fertile idea, since the Minitel has lasted thirty years and has proved profitable: it has brought back a lot of money to the incumbent operator and has given rise to a multitude of diversified uses. . It is true to say that this new small media was ten years ahead of time. A new, easy-to-use terminal, a huge database – the largest civilian database at the time -, the use of new multiprocessors on the market, software innovations to manage interactivity and correction automatic words long before Google.
A judicious legal foundation too, since the Minitel, by the foresight of the eminent jurists who established the right, was not inscribed in the audiovisual law, stifling innovation, but in that of the correspondence, leaving to the issuer of content a very broad initiative. This was the reason why a certain blind press, as well as the audiovisual media of the time, (starting with the Ministry of Information), fired red bullets on this ugly duck.
The Minitel finally proceeded from an “industrial thought” that did not survive from 1981 to the present day, the same that inspired the Airbus, the TGV, the Ariane rocket, etc.
Most innovations in these areas point to an invariant, an economic postulate that upsets conventional wisdom about market science. The supply generates the demand. Do we want other examples? Google, Amazon, etc. Indeed, the breach in which content and service providers have been engulfed has been considerable. At the inauguration of the service on July 9, 1981, 80 service providers contributed to the 30,000-page edition. In addition to the creation of an electronic directory, we can quote booking train tickets, theater tickets, classified ads, consulting his bank account, not to mention Ravel (automated census of student wishes for entry at the university), which Francis Ball conceived in 1990 and which made the happiness of the students,
The Minitel was a track, let’s say even a singularity, the unexpected child of low rates on the telephone networks. The digitization process in 1979 was just beginning. It had to evolve as the bit rates transmitted on the networks increased, thanks to the progress of the microprocessors.
It carried with it, through its software innovations in particular, the seed of a more elaborate consultation and messaging system, taking advantage of the progress in the bit rates of the telephone networks.
I am very strict about the myopia of our rulers and the big actors who had to manage France after 1980. The interest for the technologies and the innovation were not the fort of the presidents of the Republic who succeeded Giscard, very Fourth Republic and little Gaullian in this respect. We had to stay the course, take advantage of the new components, much more powerful microprocessors appearing on the market, and especially to establish a Franco-German alliance, whatever the difficulty at the time (it still remains today), to reconcile national imperialisms. It needed inspiration and willpower. After all, the BildschirmtextGerman, which was a failure, was almost the same standard as the French Minitel. The grain that had been sown was therefore dispersed in the wind. A tremendous opportunity for technological progress has been neglected. Having won a battle, France, like Europe, no doubt, lost the war.
Europe has not been able to inspire, as it did in the United States, the birth of strong technological projects, nor to create an environment that would have been conducive to the emergence of such projects. Brussels policy has been dictated by a need for pathological competition rather than the overriding concern of promoting investment. While it is normal for well-understood competition to serve the interests of consumers, its excesses run counter to investment, which is favorable for tomorrow’s consumers, that is, our children. The result has been a situation of underinvestment, particularly in emerging technology markets, where risk is higher and profitability less immediate. The delay in digitizing processes of all kinds is an illustration of this. The examples of Apple, Google and Amazon show that the North American context and market attitudes were much more favorable to the emergence of powerful groups.
Born ten years later, the Internet is inspired by a logic that I would describe as “perpendicular” to that of Minitel. It is based on the idea, which proved to be very fertile, of routed networks, opposed to the one, traditional since Graham Bell, of switched networks.
To illustrate this new concept by an image, it is the principle of the roundabout to the English (one passes when one can) opposing that of the traffic lights (one passes when the fire is green, one does not pass not if it is red, even if nobody uses the perpendicular way), from where, under certain limits, a saving of time and efficiency. At the time, the Internet was a crazy network of English roundabouts.
The IP standard, very simple, has taken over the standard ATM, developed in Europe, and unfortunately complicated as pleasure by engineers. And above all, the generalization of the PC was effective, which was not the case ten years ago. But a major difference: the Minitel knew how to bill “directly” the information, it was designed for that. Structurally, the Internet could not and still can not. Such a difference is cleavable. In the evolution of the species of telecommunications systems, the Internet is not therefore a Darwinian mutation of the Minitel, it is a rupture.