Minitel - the resistible rise of French Videotex

Ewan Sutherland

Marketing Videotex


At the time when Prestel was first being sold in the UK, in 1979, it had to compete in the consumer market with other technologies, though not themselves information sources. Having decided that use should be made of television sets, videotex adaptors came to compete with other televisionrelated devices, in particular Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs). Consumers found VCRs more plausible purchases, they could more readily visualise their applications.

Additional competition came from computers. Videotex was conceived and launched before the IBM PC, which radically changed perceptions of computing. At the time the only competition was from games computers. There was little competition for information supply in the domestic market, though rather more in the commercial sector where some specialists were working, for example, Reuters and Dialog.

A related service has been developed called teletext. In this the data are transmitted within a conventional television signal, obviating the need for the telephone line. The electronics for teletext were built into the television sets. In the UK these are known as Oracle and Ceefax. The uptake of teletext was much higher than videotex. The incremental cost for the adapter was relatively low and it quickly became an accepted feature of top of the range models from which it spread downwards. In the UK, 15% of television sets are sold with a teletext facility. Oracle claims to have over 1,200 pages of information, including 200 pages of advertisements targeted at over four million television sets suitably equipped. Over four million viewers 'watch' Oracle each day, giving a weekly view of over six million viewers. Commercial services are paid for by advertising. [Keynote, 1988]

Successful videotex markets can be seen as a combination of issues from both supply and demand sides, though mainly the former. The following sections explore these issues, considering the lessons learned. [PIIC, 1988]

Supplyside Factors

Potential consumers of videotex, whether residential or commercial, would require an access mechanism which was easy and reliable, with short call setup times and a rapid response rate. These are the technological minima for the provision of a service. Consequently, the level of development of the telecommunications network is a key factor affecting access to the videotex databases and the reliability of the transmission of data.

To be successful on the supplyside, videotex initiatives have required the collaboration of network owners (usually the post telephone and telegraph monopoly PTT), IT equipment manufacturers and information providers. If the videotex system was to be built to a national standard then the national IT supply industry had to be able to meet most of the demand. This implied the existence of the technological capability to design and build the systems. Perhaps more importantly, it required the commercial capacity to exploit the market opportunity.

A key decision has been whether to use an adaptor for television sets or to build dedicated terminals. For the domestic market the former was thought to be better, while for the commercial market a dedicated terminal has been felt essential.

To achieve a low unit cost it was necessary for manufacturers to have available a 'chipset', a number of specifically designed integrated circuits, which could be installed in decoders or terminals. A significant scale of production was required if the chip maker was to recover the development costs. A similar issue arose with ISDN, where a 'chipset' has been vital to reduce the cost of ISDN terminals and add-on cards for workstations. In neither case has the extent of demand been sufficiently clear to determine the final price level of terminals.

In most countries the government or PTT selected the standard for videotex. However, in the USA there was no attempt to set a technical standard. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declined to do so on the grounds that the market should choose between the conflicting standards. At no time has a significant volume of consumers been established which would signal this decision, despite the efforts of a number of industries which have tried to enter the videotex market: retailers, publishers, financial services, etc. [Chin, 1985]

The introduction of a new service was always likely to bring out old rivalries between the telecommunications utilities and post offices, television companies and newspapers. These have varied from country to country, depending on the existing power structure.

The approaches used in developing a videotex service have been quite varied. The British chose to create a number of computers spread throughout the UK to which local rate telephone calls could be made. Each computer held a copy of the complete Prestel database. The database was updated regularly using the data communications network. Access to the database was easy and cheap with loading on the backbone digital network kept to a minimum. The problem with this approach was one of creating a menu structure which allowed users easy access to the pages of data. Despite considerable efforts at simplification the hierarchical menu structures were neither easy nor efficient to use.

Information providers require a large market if they are to provide services in a cost effective manner. They need to recover the costs of the time and effort of converting printed material into a computer database and of making that material available in a form suitable for the system. Equally, they must devise a system for accessing the information, a combination of human computer interaction and menu structure.

This has tended to create a vicious circle of participants waiting for the market to develop. Information providers want a population of users willing to buy services. Manufacturers wanted to see sufficient information services for consumers to feel justified in purchasing the equipment. Consumers wanted cheap terminals or adopters and interesting services up and running. Given these factors some measure of coordination has been called for, either through the market or, more frequently, through government intervention.

Demandside Factors

Videotex was not the solution to an existing problem, it was a technological capability. Its likely success in the marketplace was difficult to judge, being a function of complex and often perverse factors on the supplyside.

There were many obstacles to the adoption of videotex in the home. Conventionally, the television set is used only for entertainment. By trying to modify this role, conflict is introduced, often real conflict between members of a family, to which the only easy solution is to buy another television set. Similar problems were encountered with early home computers. The physical and social settings are not conducive to the assimilation of information. In addition, the ergonomics of videotex systems were never very good, finding the information on many systems could be frustrating. Once found, reading a television screen is uncomfortable and not well suited to absorbing text-based information.

Videotex has had to compete with existing and established sources of information. Newspapers and magazines are well established, relatively cheap and widely read.

The fundamental question which remains answered in the negative is 'Do consumers want more information?' It appears that whilst they will buy certain services, they do not want information or are unaware of what they want. Perceptions of the information society were biased by an overintellectualisation, consumers rejected this too serious 'rational' model; the information being offered was worthy but dull. As the French experience was to show, people adopted a 'fun' model, playing silly games, and a more practical model, buying their shopping and checking their bank accounts.

Similar problems were encountered in the market for computers in the home. The choice was perceived as being between silly games or abstruse programming languages. To succeed in a general market sensible applications were and still are required.

In the commercial sector in the UK, the greatest success lay in closed user groups. The best of these is in the travel sector, where the initiative of Sealink was taken up by Thomson [Palmer, 1988] and has led to every travel agent in the country making extensive use of videotex.

High levels of ownership of personal computers can create a potential market of knowledgeable computer users who can be sold relatively cheap 'add-ons' for their computers to allow them to use the service. They also constitute a population from which innovative information providers might come, for example, devising videotex services is a useful application of skills developed in writing computer games.

Organising the supplyside has proved much easier than determining and meeting the needs of consumers. This is particularly worrying given the amount of effort already expended and the requirement to go the same process for ISDN.


Following the British lead, most countries made videotex a national initiative. Videotex was seen to be in the telecommunications domain, related to the PTT, and therefore a natural subject for government. Countries adopted national standards which reflect the technology of the time when the country entered videotex provision. Thus interconnection of networks was made difficult and sales of services and equipment across borders was made almost impossible. Videotex has been seen as a new national utility.

In following the British example, of seeing videotex as something national, many countries were to follow in its failure. National factors such as telecommunications regulation, media structures and perceptions of videotex influenced the outcome through political fighting of new and emerging power players.

In Germany the videotex service, Bildschirmtext, was launched in 1983, following limited experiments begun in 1980. A dedicated terminal was chosen because of the strictly defined role of the Deutsche Bundespost. The view taken was that terminals had to be built by private industry and sold to consumers. The intention of the service was to generate network traffic for the Deutsche Bundespost (DBP). Although it has grown steadily (see table), the service ran at an annual deficit of over DM 100 million in the late 1980s. In 1994 it was repackaged and marketed as Datex-J, an Internet access service. [Schneider, 1989]

Table Statistics for Bildschirmtext

  1984 1986 1988
Subscribers 21,329 58,365 146,929
Information providers 3,099 3,528 3,360
Pages on system 521,783 589,330 666,167
Number of connections per month 282,729 1,064,825 3,153,435

Source: Schneider, 1989

[ 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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