A game of What-If - American Minitel - 'What if VideoTel actually succeeded'

Introduction

Minitel - The French Connection

For those not wanting to read a wiki article or watch youtube? Minitel was france in the 70’s going ‘OMG our national phone system is all kinds of old, and we’re relying on too many outside companies for our computing which is bad because they won’t sell to us because the US government told them not to.’ Then they set to work not just modernizing thier telephone network, but also managed to do in the 80’s what the rest of the world wouldn’t get til the smart phone; a population that treated computing as just a normal part of life.

Alright. We all know it didn’t work in the United States. What isn’t widely known is there were a couple attempts at making it work. The wiki article mentions a limited rollout in San Francisco and a couple other places in the early 90’s. I’d seen a few other articles mention these attempts in passing, but always as a footnote. i don’t know who’s referencing who here given it’s always a passing mention at best. ‘Oh hey this was tried and it fell on its face lol.’

This is just a bit of me going off what i know both from scattershot memories of the time and scattershot research of the time. Feel free to throw popcorn at me as i inevitably get things wrong. I am simply trying to scratch an itch I’ve had when looking at retro computing and the history of networking, and attempt to provide a hypothetical for, ‘What if attempts at bringing Minitel hadn’t completely fallen on their face?’

Or perhaps more charitably - ‘What if Minitel had succeeded in America?’

Theft, Spite, and Fears of Being Left Behind

For this to even have a hope of happening this has to happen roughly concurrent to when minitel launches in france as opposed to in the 90’s, and rolled out in a wide enough scale that a userbase exists to commercialize as opposed to a single city half hearted rollout where nobody sees it as something serious.

So, we need to go back to the origin point of Minitel. Namely, we are going to the 1978 report to President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, titled The Computerization of Society, in which government researchers Simon Nora and Alain Minc argued that the solution to France’s telecom woes lay in “telematics”—a combination of telecommunications and informatics.

Essentially a fancy way of going 'Hey these new computers? Why not hook them up to the phone system not just on the back end for switching but at the customer facing side where they can do more than just talk on a phone.

Before ‘you’ go on that this was a classified report that nobody else would have had access to except for a select few people? Here it is in a book released in 1980[1].

[1] https://search.worldcat.org/title/5799117

Realistically speaking even if there were only a few months between that report being allowed to be published and the book being made rather than it being on the desks of other people near immediately? That’s still only a couple years out of step.

Mind you this is the same era when KeyFax [2] was a thing that was tried (seriously why did we never gert a Ceefax type system here?)
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHhjxYkuUlI#t=14m05s

i’m getting side-tracked.

There is one major factor that is this looming bell shaped shadow that hangs over whether this entire concept succeeds or not. Ma Bell. One of if not the only allowed monopolies in the US.

By the mid-80’s though Ma Bell was shattered into regional ‘baby bell’ networks. The process started in the mid 70’s, but the ‘baby bell’ splinter segments wouldn’t have happened til a decade later in 1984. This leaves a national phone system but one that was in the process of being busted.

This leaves us in a tricky spot. There is no way to have the concept of a consumer faced series of terminals happen before then, because even the most bare bones basic dumb terminal would have been expensive and bulky. They wouldn’t have shrunk down in terms of components or cost til the 80’s, at least for uses beyond enthusiast level ‘price is no object I think that’s cool’ types.

So here we have AT&T getting told to break up in the 70’s, and then this french thing comes along while that is happening. The easy way to have this hypothetical happen is just clap twice and let it be done.

More realistically this could have been on desks months after the initial report hit the french preesident’s desks, but sat there languishing because ‘why would we want to make something that we’re just going to have to give up or spin off?’

The simplest explanation I can come up with on why this concept might have been acted on is simple good old fashioned Greed. Fine, the baby bells wouldn’t be able to control this technology and would ‘just’ be the transport layer. However, they would be getting money from the company that would be spun up, and nothing is stopping them from having their own pricing schemes for tiers of service above and beyond ‘basic’ directory lookups, deaf/hardo f hearing teletext, and anything that they would be legally mandated as part of a ‘common good’ to adhere to.

One advantage of being late to the party, but fashionably late as opposed to showing up when everyone’s already passed out drunk, is that they could look at what the french were doing and essentially copy their homework. Now they couldn’t just order french minitel terminals, both because of national mandates that these terminals be made by french companies for french customers but also because of sheer volume in how many would be needed, but they could look at the components to piggyback off the french’s research and skip to the end product.

There would be accusations made that americans were trying to co-opt what they were doing, but I feel an agrement couldh ave been reached. Establish a standard everyone’s systems could agree on as a minamum compatibility. The french gets a cash infusion to speed up adoption as well as a potential ability for their system to have even more value by being able to ‘speak’ with the american’s system. the US gets to, relatively cheaply and quickly, get their hands on not just the customer facing units but the service side hardware and how to make it all work.

This is important because without a large customer base nobody is going to want to offer services, and withotu services there is no customer base. Unlike the French the US Government isn’t directly doing anything beyond regulation.

So while this service, let’s just call it VideoTel for the service that was attempted stateside, would have to basically find a way to stand on its own without getting direct government grants, it probably will get tax incentives along with major companies signing up. kinda like how comcast got billions in subsedies to improve US infrastructure then just kinda laughed in everyone’s faces when they just took the money and … didn’t.

VideoTel Commercials

Now imagine that, but nation-wide.

OK so What Changes

Ironically? If one were to come to an 2023 there probably wouldn’t be much visible diffrence. Smart Phones, Web 2.0, social media networks, all of that would still be in full swing.

The key changes would be how we got to this point and the discussions in the 2010’s over net neutrality, and file sharing in the 2000’s probably would have happened in the late 80’s and certainly in the 90’s.

Think of it. Here is thsi big business centric network that can outright decide who gets to be part of it or not both in terms of customers and services in an era when ARPAnet had strict non-commercial policies. BBS’s were a thing by this point. Heck CBBS, the first one, went online in 1978. So BBS’s would have still been a thing. The big change is that there probably would have been incentives to make ‘your’ BBS compatible with the VideoTel service if you wanted to make money off of it, and FIDONet being seen as an alternative, possibly gaining a sort of punk anti-establishment edge to it in popular culture specifically because it was the home grown alternative that came about as a result of long distance pricing.

All this and the concept of hypertext hadn’t happened yet.

Speaking of. minitel had as its protocol bi-directionality baked in from the start, as opposed to HTML being a very unidirectional affair before additions got bolted on. Would a wide-spread american adoption of videotel have affected HTML? Hard to say.

The really fascinating thing, to me, is that we would have had the conversations over the past decade probably thirty years sooner.

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There was a lot of friction from NIH standards. Also, to take an American television away from its manifestly-destined owners — the advertisers — it had to cut them into the deal or it would be shut out.

There were NAPLPS-based systems, but they smelled suspiciously Canadian. While their vector graphics could be quite striking, they were also slow. Home information systems failed (like the recently in-vogue NABU surplus systems) because cable had no useful back channel. It was all read-only.

I remember reading that Sears had a chance at rolling out a videotext system, but at the time they were so invested in being a real-estate owning entity they thought that online might cost them business. So they didn’t invest in interactive systems and lost the chance to own the market.

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sears missing out on the potential of online shopping just boggles my mind given their catalogue was a staple for, by that point, over a century.

Sears was one of the two big backers of Prodigy (along with IBM), which was basically an online shopping experience with graphics. It actually overtook Compuserve, before AOL surged past it.

The fact that Minitel was two way is a bit … trivial, actually. ALL of the usual services at the time were two way interactive. Not just the centralized ventures, but also stuff like Gopher and Archie and what not. Quintessentially, they were all based on two way terminal type interfaces going back to before computers.

That HTTP was one way was simply that it was designed to serve up static content for scientists in academia. We’re talking research professors with not much extra time on their hands, so it was a no brainer to just keep things simple and static. HTTP was designed to be simpler to use and administer than FTP, and that … was that.

It’s just a lamentable accident of events that HTTP would become what it became.

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Video-text was I think a better idea.
With out Windows,I don’t think the web would have grown as quickly.
Adult enterament I suspect too, promoted non academic use.

It was brilliantly bold of the French government to give away Minitel terminals to every telephone subscriber. There is every indication that they turned them into a for-profit business unit, even though it was still free to use their electronic phone directory “app,” the original rationale for this massive rollout of “dumb” yet still avant-garde terminals.

P.S. anyone want my copy of
Minitel: Welcome to the Internet
by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll?
(You’d just have to pay shipping)

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Let us not forget Bell Canada’s attempt to introduce the original Minitel to Canada in the 1990s as Alex.

They introduced it, apparently, because Minitel was introducing a service in Quebec (which, if true, is interesting all on its own). Bell rushed out their version, using the same terminals but aimed for cross-country use.

In reality, most of the content was French, which is not surprising, so it had little success outside of Quebec. And everyone complained it cost too much, which was a killer when there were huge services like Compuserve, and the rapidly proliferating free BBSs.

They kept it going for a couple of years, but I never met anyone that actually used it. Someone gave us a terminal to see if we could get it working with FirstClass, but I don’t think we even plugged it in.

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Here’s an article (in French) on the Quebecian (Québécois) Minitel and Bell’s competing Alex service:

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Nice find! I’ve incorporated it into the wiki article on Alex.

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This is part of why I do these things.

Discussion stirs things loose that might help add to what’s there.

The other reason is convrosation starter. As I feel had Videotel been a widely accepted thing we would have had wider discussions of rights and identity and all the other things we’re having Now. Granted there were BBS era court rulings involving file sharing and image reproduction that were of note and consiquence, but BBS’s were a niche hobby. To us enthusiests and oldsters they were a center cultural thing, but in wider socviety? A prop that shows up in the odd tv show or movie that may as well have been made up FOR the movie.

Had these things been more widely accepted I can absolutely see discussions over net neutrality in that you wouldh ave arguments from the pearl clutching class that anything not connected to ‘the network’ by approved means (IE pay to play) shouldn’t be allowed. Caricterizing BBS’s as dens of vice and moral corruption.

As opposed to that… as well as amazing hobbyspaces and community watering holes for nerds. All depending on what your chosen board catered to.

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I totally agree.

That’s an interesting take on this, which isn’t seen often. When I was entering the unknown territories of computing, Bildschirm Text (BTX), one of the more ambitious video text systems, was soon on the horizon, the next big thing after home computing (or, rather, it’s logical consequence) and supposed to take over in a storm. I recall, while in my teens, feeling somewhat uneasy about this – and actually alleviated by its demise.
Later, I learned that academia had heavily invested in this, with studies regarding feasability and potential impact, as well as political advice. Which was a major reason for academia generally taking kind of a relaxed backseat when it came to the Web, accepting whatever came from those “West Coast hippies” (compare, “this is better than drugs”, © Stewart Brand) as, yes, this is how things will go. (Actual quote from one of my professors, “We erred so severely on BTX, we won’t risk anything like this regarding WWW.”)

Edit: Having said that, I have always been fascinated by the story of Minitel. While a regulated network under central authority and control, it was allowed to grow in unexpected and surprising ways and manners – with official backing. Which may be quite unique to France.

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It did find some small uses, however. Apparently the Manitoba government gave every farmer a Commodore 64 and the Manitoba Telephone System Videotex Decoder which gave them access to an online agricultural information system.

This being a worthwhile Canadian initiative*, it failed to set the rest of the world on fire.

Stewart


*: “worthwhile Canadian initiative” was once voted the most boring headline possible by American journalists

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Which is sad, because to be perfectly blunt? This is the sort of information that rural communities and households would love. Here is data that can help you with your crops, planting, and stuff you care about that is absolutely and completely up to date…

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That reminds me of the origin of the TRS-80 Color Computer, which started off as a 1980 VideoTex terminal for farmers/ranchers. In 1978, when this agricultural project started, there was no off-the-shelf affordable home computer suitable for the service.

In hindsight, HTTP “won” because it was NOT designed around a modem connection. It was designed around (mostly university) computers connected to the internet 24/7. When its popularity started breaking out beyond academia, it was via the text browser Lynx.

While VideoTex terminals and most BBS’s sported more sophisticated graphics capabilities, they were married to modem connections, making them largely useless for science professors in their university offices.

What could have won instead of HTTP? Well, maybe an extension of Telnet which offered seamless downloading of files (scientific papers and data files). This hypothetical “hypertelnet” could be similar to Lynx to the end user, but strictly running on the server end so the “browser” is basically just a dumb terminal.

So, while HTTP was basically a dumbed down anonymous FTP that was dead easy to set up and administer (at first), this “hypertelnet” would be a dumbed down anonymous telnet - but with the addition of Z-Modem style file transfer capabilities (which telnet lacked, and still lacks).

Fast forward a bit, and the client could include graphics abilities and clickable GUI elements, but no need for weird hacks to “introduce” interactivity - it was interactive from the start.

Fast forward further, and the need for actual security encourages a transition from telnet protocol to ssh protocol. This would be an easier transition than http to https, and also a lot more robust.

I bring up Z-Modem because you might think that including this sort of functionality in telnet or ssh is a no-brainer considering dial-up terminals had it since forever. But look around! Telnet and SSH STILL lack that functionality. *nix devs just think different or something.

Their whole design philosophy was not compatible with the idea of taking ideas from VideoTex or BBS’s or whatnot. “Do one thing and do it well.” So when Lynx supported more than one protocol that was just really out there for them. On home computers, with more limited resources and lacking multi-tasking, it made more sense to do things very differently.

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Wait what? I thought z modem was one of the lowest levels of assumed compatibility. How is that not baked in?

My 2 ¢’s. Farmers tend to live down on the farm. Phone rates I guess 25 ¢’s a minute to
said server back then. Say 20 minutes a session, or $ 5.00 a day. That could be feed for 100
chickens. You can see why farmers never used that.

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Or more simple

‘The Almanac worked good enough for my dad. It’ll work good enough for me.’

I grew up in a rural area. In high school somebody always seemed to a radio on at lunch.
12:40 you got the farm report. … hogs trading at …

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Interesting!

Ah, you beat me to it! (See the CoCopedia)

The guiding principle is that if a different program provided some functionality, let that program do the job. Transferring files was something ftp could do, so telnet shouldn’t do file transferring.

Nice in theory. In practice, it could be a jarring experience.

If you dialed in from home, you could telnet from the shell account you dialed into to another server somewhere, navigate to a directory, and then initiate a Z-Modem transfer from there. You could even nest telnet sessions, and telnet would blissfully relay the ASCII text however many hops until your terminal emulator received the Z-Modem magic strings and transfer the file.

But if you logged in directly to a *nix workstation at the university, you couldn’t do anything like that. If you used telnet to connect to another server, and then navigated to the directory with the files you were interested in, you could … uhh … use “more” to view the contents? If you wanted to actually transfer the files, you had to use “ftp” and then navigate blah blah blah … ugh.