FUN FRIDAY: When France ruled the online world

Believe it or not: In 1978, nearly forty years ago, you could shop from home, check stock prices, get news, make plane reservations, even send messages to other online users. The only hitch: you had to be in France.

That’s right, France was the center of the high-tech world back then.

This was high technology back then

The device you see above you is a Minitel, a computer terminal installed in French households throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was a service of the French Post Office and had a surprising amount of function. It connected via phone line and became one of the most powerful home devices of the time. Today it looks like a relic (personally I don’t know why but the “Espace” key cracks me up, but it was really high tech back then.

It was incredibly successful. Of course it was, because there was nothing like it back then. I’m sure that our jaded 2020s eyes would look upon it as extremely limited, with its black-and-white text-only screen. But if you were out there in the 1970s it must have seemed like the future had finally arrived.

Services in other countries

With the success of the Minitel, other countries tried to implement Videotex services (as they were then called) in the 1980s. None were as successful as France. Here in the US, Radio Shack launched a version of its Color Computer with the same services, but it failed here even though Radio Shack was a market leader at that time (my how things have changed.) I remember trying it in a Radio Shack store when it launched. It was colorful and interesting and it seemed much better than the other online services that were just starting up. But, in the end Videotex on the Radio Shack device failed, because the terminal itself was the same price as a full-function computer. People back then weren’t ready for that. Chromebooks are all the rage now, but an online-only device didn’t make a lot of sense in the Carter era.

You could do a lot with it, surprisingly

The service was very primitive by today’s standards, since it had to rely on a 300 baud (.003Mbps) modem that could barely handle text. You also needed a landline, and you couldn’t use that line while you were using it for Minitel. Still, it was so popular that it continued on well into the modern internet era. The terminals were free to French homes, and I’m sure that contributed to their popularity. People do love free stuff. They used Minitel for everything from community organizing to full-on political activism, much as Twitter is today.

Here’s the most amazing thing about Minitel… despite all the advances in internet technology, the service actually wasn’t retired until the summer of 2012, just ten short years ago. That’s quite a testament to its popularity. Now, of course, French citizens rely on their smartphones just like the rest of us, but don’t forget that they had a 20-year head start.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.