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.
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  was a thing that was tried (seriously why did we never gert a Ceefax type system here?)
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.
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.