After 30 years of service, France’s Minitel information service is shutting down for good. Launched in 1982 by the French state telephone company Poste, Téléphone et Télécommunications (PTT), which later became France Télécom, it was France’s answer to the World Wide Web before the Web was even created. However, despite remarkable initial success, it proved unable to compete with the modern internet and on June 30, 2012 it will be switched off.

At the time of its launch, Minitel was the world's largest public information access service. It was originally intended to save money for PTT by replacing non-business telephone directories with a digital equivalent. This was achieved by providing all telephone subscribers free of charge with a “dumb” keyboard terminal with a built-in CRT screen connected to a telephone modem with which subscribers could look up telephone numbers in the form of low-resolution text, also free of charge.

However, it soon became apparent that Minitel was capable of much more and PTT started offering other services for which subscribers were charged on a per-minute basis, such as news feeds, banking, chat and others. At its peak, these services numbered at around a thousand. These proved to be extremely popular and by the 1990s Minitel reached nine million subscribers in France, generating over US$1 billion in annual revenues. Even on the eve of shutdown, Minitel still has 800,000 subscribers, though mostly older people who are not comfortable with computers.

Despite its initial success, Minitel still had its problems. For one thing, France found it impossible to export the technology - especially in the wake of the PC revolution whose users saw Minitel as merely a crude version of the dial-up bulletin board services (BBS) that were coming on line in the ‘80s. The other problem was that Minitel quickly became overrun by the sex industry and subscribers were inundated with messageries roses or "pink messages" - advertisements for sex chat lines and prostitutes, which turned the service into a running joke.

But what finally killed Minitel was that its business model and technology failed to move forward as the internet evolved. While anyone could post almost anything on the internet, service providers for Minitel had to make a formal application to go online. In addition, the terminals quickly became relics of early ‘80s technology with very little change beyond the cosmetic and an unwillingness on the part of France Télécom to merge Minitel with the internet. In the face of a declining and aging subscriber base, Minitel’s days were numbered and will come to their end on Saturday.

Source: PC Magazine

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