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.
- An AOL site might draw more revenue than a “pure-play” Web page (a dubious proposition; since “content providers” had to start paying AOL for a presence, who is making money there?). A Minitel service will draw revenue while your parallel Web site lurches toward second-round funding. How much money? Kilotons: “Last year , France Telecom had FRF5 billion (US$709.8 million) in
revenue from the Minitel. Roughly 70% of that went to the
businesses offering their services on the Minitel.” And you were salivating over a few million in your second round. Get a grip. (In fact, some twit gives himself enough rope to hang with: “I don’t think the Minitel is an issue at all in French E-commerce.... It’s not an inhibitor or an accelerator or anything
else that people have been saying about it. It’s really a non-event in
those terms. Minitel is not going to fundamentally change the way
E-commerce is being conducted in France.”
- Minitel has trained the French public in “correct thought.”
“France is one of the only countries where you pay to get commercial information, and this is due to the Minitel,” [some analyst or other] says. “I’m not sure that it was really bad for the French. It’s true that it slowed down the speed in which people moved to the Internet, but the experience that was acquired on the Minitel makes it more easy for French people to get used to the Internet when they make the switch.”
What is meant here, of course, is “get used to paying for Web content, unlike those freeloading Americans.” Separately, we are told: “ ‘We are trying to figure out ways to diversify our sources of
revenue,’ [some Yahoo apologist] said, ‘notably in making our users pay for added-value
services. The Minitel is quite interesting for the kinds of questions it allows
us to study on the billing methods, on micropayments. Should we charge
a small payment, a time payment, etc.? It’s not “back to the past,”
but part of our strategy oriented toward the future.’ ” En tout cas:
“The Minitel was wonderful because you had millions of customers but there was one company paying you, ” [this same analyst] says. “There was no need to go after the customer. When you come from this kind of business model it’s very difficult to move to one where you have to find advertising or you have to charge to credit cards.”
- Who the hell says text-only services aren’t good enough? First of all, the essence of the Internet is text. If you’re rebelling against text-only, you’re really rebelling against lousy typography (at the micro level) and graphic design (at the macro), not the presence of words. But all that aside, what do you think chat and instant messaging are? Why else do people sign up for AOL? Should we even mention Short Message Service on GSM phones? How about compulsive Blackberry-twiddling by “Web professionals” who otherwise demand a symphony of Flash as baseline for every site worth talking about?
- Minitel is centralized and controlled. But so is instant messaging. If you really want to contact someone, you are practically stuck with ICQ or AOL Instant Messenger, both of which Steve Case owns. We hold out no hope whatsoever for a unified instant-messaging standard; users of Microsoft or Yahoo messaging are tilting at windmills, knowingly choosing the equivalent of a telephone that cannot reach every other telephone. We are putting up with centralized instant messaging pretty well despite its ill-advisedness.
- Centralization and control work only so well. France Télécom owns Minitel, but also the dominant portal, perplexingly named Wanadoo. (A French word beginning with a W? This is Disneyland.) Minitelists refused to be assimilated into the new portal collective. Minitel thrives even today. So does Wanadoo, for that matter. You can even get it in Lebanon.
- It was bruited that Yahoo was on the verge of offering a variant of itself on Minitel, as if through mitosis. It appears that all you can do is check your mail, but Web-based E-mail you can look up at any of your friends’ houses has a lot going for it. Is Yahoo known for stupidity? (Only when it comes to porn.) Apparently you need a model 3615 Minitel terminal for Yahoo to work, hence its name: 3615 Yahoo.
- In fact, Yahoo is so nonstupid that a genuinely stupid competitor, AltaVista, set up its own competing Minitel outpost cunningly dubbed 3615 AltaVista, complete with Babelfish pseudotranslation. It’s a fair strategy: Brand recognition (it helps that A comes before Y), and besides, «Et puis, je constate que ça marche mieux que le WAP.»
- And getting back to that text-only interface: What do you think shoephones use? And they’re all hot-hot-hot, aren’t they, despite being useless for anything but voice conversation? The two media are related: “[Some apologist of alleged standing] says at first [Yahoo] didn’t want to tinker with its user interface, which is an important part of the company’s success. But that taboo was removed when Yahoo recently created a modified site for people using mobile phones to access the Web.”
- Has Minitel hindered the advancement of the net in France? Indisputably. Then again, there wasn’t a lot of French content for years and years. Can you blame them? But in any case, a competing analysis holds that Minitel trained the French to prefer a unidirectional content model as opposed to the putatively bi- and multidirectional (or pluridirectionnel) nature of the Web. Under this romanticized philosophy, we are all deemed and counted as content creators because it is possible, not because we are actually interested in doing it.
Le Minitel est un modèle de publication monodirectionnel (les diffuseurs ne sont pas les consommateurs, les consommateurs ne sont pas les diffuseurs) alors qu’Internet est vraiment bien plus qu’un média classique : c’est un système de communication pluridirectionnel dans lequel l’utilisateur est successivement consommateur puis diffuseur d’informations. Il existe en effet un ensemble varié de technologies permettant à l’internaute de s’exprimer et de diffuser largement le résultat de sa réflexion. C’est ainsi que la publication en ligne devient possible à toute personne motivée. Or, l’analogie répétée entre le Minitel et Internet laisse croire aux français qu’ils ne peuvent avoir sur la Toile qu’une attitude de consommation et non de prise de parole.... On comprend dès lors la réticence des universitaires à se jeter dans la cohue en publiant en ligne, la démarche n’étant ni valorisée ni séduisante.
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