Minitel -- the resistible rise of French videotex

Ewan Sutherland


Until the mid-1970s the French telecommunications network was seen as lagging behind the other advanced nations. The process of modernisation was set in motion by Jacques Dondoux, Director-General of Telecommunications, with the active support of President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. In part, it was a response to a report by two inspecteurs generales des finances Simon Nora and Alain Minc [1978], the highly influential "L'Informatisation de la Société".

Following the implementation of an extensive programme of modernisation, France has caught up with or is ahead of most other countries in Europe, at least in most technical considerations. It has a highly sophisticated and fully digital Public Switched Telephone Network, an extensive packet switching network (Transpac) and has implemented Integrated Services Digital Network (Numéris).

In one important respect telecommunications in France is different from the rest of the world. It is the only country with a mass residential market in value-added services. The Télétel system, better known as Minitel (the name of the terminals) reaches over five million French residential and commercial telephone subscribers. A significant number of new services were developed using Minitel either to enhance an existing business service or to create completely new businesses.

Minitel has proved to be French in an almost exclusive way, a true expression of the French nationalistic Complexe Astérix . The technical standard used is French. The equipment is manufactured by French suppliers. Neither the system nor the services have proved to be readily exportable or transferrable. By the mid-1990s, the rest of the world was catching up, as the Internet grew at a tremendous speed.

The rise of French Minitel was far from inevitable. Endeavours to promote and develop equivalent videotex systems in the UK, USA, Canada, Japan and Germany failed for a variety of reasons. Comparisons with these countries make it possible to show how this uniquely French success was achieved and to identify its characteristics.

Today, the Minitel system is exposed to competition within the European Union's single internal market in value-added services. It is also being challenged by new generations of technology, based on Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Loop (ADSL), which are much more technically sophisticated and have the potential to carry more innovative services. The global market for Internet access is now growing in ways which have allowed it to overtake Minitel, elsewhere, if not yet in France. A political challenge to Minitel from the Cour des Comptes [1989], the national auditors, accused France Télécom of creating an artificial market for Minitel-based services and attacked it for wasting public money.

In this case study, the developments which have shaped and continue to shape the market for services using videotex are considered. There is an examination of how firms have responded or might respond to the challenges and opportunities. It also seeks to identify lessons for developers of valueadded services in France and other countries. Insofar as it is possible and judicious, there is a consideration of the future development of videotex.

[ Introduction | Invention | Marketing | French telecommunications | France Télécom | French videotex | Messagerie Conviviale | Unnatural market | Cour des Comptes | Quickening pace of technology and politics | Conclusion | Bibliography | Chronology | Web links ]

Copyright © Ewan Sutherland, 1995.

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