Minitel, the undead cœlecanth

Online, we have the real Web and we have AOL, just as we have diamonds and cubic zirconia. Oh, it is certainly true that intercourse between the two realms is possible, but such is not very fulfilling. “Web people” disdain AOL, usually with reason. “Dot-com people” want a contract with AOL, also usually with reason. This town is big enough for both of us.

Is it big enough for Minitel?

The antiquated telecommunications infrastructure, implanted in nine to twelve million French homes (estimates vary), proudly offers you a Commodore 64 Experience: Small screen, characters only, low bandwidth. But Minitel is practical. Since everybody uses it (terminals are usually free; they ding you on access time), you get a Zipf effect right off the bat, and hundreds of services from thousands of companies are right there waiting.

But the Gitanes crowd disdains Minitel. In fact, it has been declared that such a crowd is “the post-Minitel generation.” Minitel is so... primitive. All the wrong people use it: “Still 85 percent of people who are 50 years or older use the Minitel.” The Web is so much sexier. Just as with the Australians, though, could it be that the wholesale importation of the American Web idiom works about as well as the equivalent colonization by Mickey Mouse?

Well, lookit. Even if our dear American cousins don’t particularly give a damn, Minitel offers a few lessons for us.

Conclusions? When in Rome, speak Latin. When swimming in textual waters, expect what you spit out to be chlorinated words.

Some technologies are primitive. But sophisticated technologies aren’t the only ones that work – or pay.

Posted on 2001-05-20