Minitel - the resistible rise of French videotex

Minitel -- the resistible rise of French videotex

Ewan Sutherland

The Quickening Pace of Technology

Trials of the French ISDN service, Numéris, were conducted first in St Brieuc in 1987, then in Rennes and Paris in 1988. The trial was further expanded to Lille, Lyon and Marseille in 1989. In 1990, France Télécom was able to offer ISDN on a national basis, the first country to do so. Experience from Minitel and similar ventures had made clear the importance of providing a national service as soon as possible. [Dunogué, 1990]

The key question with ISDN concerns the services which consumers would buy; 'putting the S into ISDN'. At present, the evidence is that photovideotex is being used, for example, by estate agents to sell property. Some businesses are beginning to use Group 4 Facsimile, which is a technical upgrading of Group 3 facsimile, of much higher quality.

The Commission of the European Communities has been active in telecommunications in technical developments, through programmes such as RACE and ESPRIT. It has played an important role in the development of the idea of Integrated Broadband Communication (IBC), which will eventually replace ISDN.

A major French experiment has been conducted at Biarritz, to evaluate interactive cable television. As yet, the Government has not chosen to act the findings and the experiment has been played down in recent months. However, interactive cable represents a logical extension of Minitel, with a number of advantages, including an enormous increase of the bandwidth for signalling and potentially very large audiences.

The Single Telecommunications Market

French telecommunications are at least technically comparable with other leading countries and arguably better. (See Table)

Table Telephone Statistics

CountryTeledensity (1988)Mobile density
France 45.232.5
Germany 45.902.0
UK 39.00 (1)11.5
Belgium 36.040.2
Italy 34.930.8
Norway 47.7638.4
Japan 40.68
Canada 51.20 (2)
USA 40.91 (3)

Source: UIT 1990 & Financial Times 1989

1 Figure for 1979
2 Figure for 1987
3 Figure for 1982

Where France is clearly lagging is in mobile telephony. France Télécom has been far slower to introduce cellular radio systems than the UK or the Nordic countries.

In the areas of regulation and liberalisation, France has been slow to change. It is unclear whether France has liberalised its telecommunications industry to the extent necessary to be able to face the current round of changes. The European Commission is endeavouring to create a single market in telecommunications, both data communications and value added services. The US-based RBOCs (regional Bell operating companies) and other liberalised telecommunications operators (e.g., Cable and Wireless) are developing global networks and are moving into Europe. Meanwhile, the French postal and telecommunications services are only now being separated.

At a meeting of the Telecommunications Council in December 1989, the European Community decided to create a single market in telecommunications and services. From 1 January 1991 there will be a free market in value added services which will be followed by a free market in data services from 1 January 1993. Greece, Portugal and Spain are to be allowed an extra two years to develop their data services before they would be exposed to competition.

The creation of this market occurs at a time when the RBOCs are beginning to flex their muscles in Europe. From the European perspective a danger lies in creating a market in time for the Americans to take the largest share. We have already seen AT&T acquire the UK firm ISTEL as part of its Global Messaging System. Given the large installed user base of Minitels it would be relatively easy for service providers to move into the French market.

There is little evidence of French providers of VANs striking out beyond France, other than in collaboration with France Télécom in a few small scale joint ventures to provide Minitel service in other countries. Some new traffic is being generated from links to other countries, allowing some consumers to access French Minitel services.

What the Customer Wants

The life of the technologist is continually confounded by the cussedness of the customer, whose unpredictability and disinterest are legendary. Videotex, outside France, failed to convince, partly because technology and not services were being sold.

Many executives in this infant industry are haunted by the fear that the inventors once again trapped management into investing in something simply because it can be done.
[Meyer, 1983]

We may live in the information society but, paradoxically, people do not appear to want information on a personal basis and certainly will not pay the full price for it.

Home banking has been a considerable success, with most banks participating. It was a logical extension of the automation of banking through the development of cash dispensers, treasury management systems, etc. However, evidence from the UK suggests that voice-based systems are a much cheaper and attractive alternative.

Teleshopping has also been successful. It to was a logical extension of automation in the retail sector, part of a growing rationalisation of the distribution of goods. There remains considerable scope for further developments. One very attractive area is comparison shopping, showing tables of prices for the same goods in different stores.

At present we are seeing a massive growth in voicemail, to such an extent that it might overtake electronic mail. This seems to reflect ease of use. It is in clear contrast to the relatively lacklustre performance of X.400.

Upgrading Minitel

Minitel having been left largely unchanged for many years faced three competing technologies in the marketplace. From:

In the spring of 1995, France Télécom launched the Magis terminal fitted with a smart card reader. (The smart card was developed in France in the early 1980s and is used extensively, including all VISA cards.)

The other change is the growth of sales of Minitel cards as add-ons for personal computers The appearance of popular access to the Internet provides an alternative platform for service providers. They must decide to build applications for Minitel or for the Internet:

... all of the Teletel editors I know are asking themselves on what platform they will put their service and how they will out their service and how they will change the product.
Christope Sapet, PDG, Infogrames Entertainement
France Télécom offers both Kiosque Micro at 14,4k bps and Télétel Access Numéris at 64k bps. By comparison, Téle´tel Vitesse Rapide (TVR), also known as Minitel 4, operates at only 9.6k bps. This isfar from state-of-the-art, though much faster than the existing 1,2k bps:

TVR has arrived a bit late from our point of view and we don't believe that it represents an interest for photos, just text transmission speed.
Gerard Laroux, Secretaire-Generale, Association Francaise de Telematique (Aftel)
In Kioskque Micro applications run in a Microsoft Windows environment. For service providers it requires considerable work in adding sound and graphics, presenting technical and marketing problems.

The old Minitel will continue for a while because there are lots of applications that need only that and very few French homes are equiped with PCs and modems. It also remains an inexpensive tool for small companies that don't have the financial means to equip themselves with PCs.
Ronan Le Moign, Jouve S.A.
The phasing out of the Minitel terminals could take until around 2001.

Internet service providers are operating in France as in other European countries. For example:

In 1995 France Télécom joined the General Magic consortium involving:

[ 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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