France Telecom retired its Minitel service on the 30th of June 2012, and the announcement caused nostalgic regret to many Frenchmen. Had Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s Steve Jobs been alive today, he would probably too have mourned the demise of the clunky table-top gadget that was a forerunner of today’s always-on internet-based devices.
Introduced in the days before the Internet, or the World Wide Web, the Minitel was an online video-cum-text service that a customer could access through phone lines, and the result of experiments in 1978 and 1982 by France’s PTT (Poste, Téléphone et Télécommunications). It enabled users to buy online, book train seats, catch up on the stock market, to find a telephone number and exchange mail and chat – very surprisingly similar to today’s internet services. It proved to be surprisingly successful and at one time boasted of almost 25 million subscribers. It also achieved some very well-deserved notoriety for the infamous “Minitel Rose” sex chat lines and the impact they had on customers’ phone bills!
The closure of the service in June met with many homages paid to it on this page. This one is particularly interesting:
In 1990 we were tapping into the Minitel systems (legally and by arrangement!) in schools in Stoke-on-Trent as a way of accessing authentic and up-to-date resources. It was exciting at the time to be able to get traffic reports, phone numbers, weather reports, the TV guide etc. long before the internet made it all seem a bit low key! Adieu Minitel!”
The Minitel is also supposed to have offered inspiration to the late Steve Jobs, according to a report in CNBC.
The report quotes Gerard Thery, a Frenchman who contributed to the launch of Minitel in 1982, as saying “He bought one and took it to bits to see how it worked.”
Did Jobs derive some ideas for his world-beating gadgets from this humble device? It’s difficult to say, but he certainly may have got a glimpse of a networked, online future from the way Minitel worked and the immense possibilities such an environment offered for the well-designed, consumer oriented gadgets that followed from Apple.