Comments on Dead Media Working Note 48.9
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From: Kirk McElhearn
Date: Tue, 12 Dec 2000 09:43:39 +0100

I know that this is not a discussion list, but, living in France for 16 years, I feel I need to reply to some of the innacurate propaganda in the article below.

>There will be an unusual union in Paris this week. Yahoo, the
>quintessential Web company, will launch a service for customers of
>Minitel, a national computer system in France, which uses old-fashioned
>technology that was supposedly made obsolete by the Internet.
>Yahoo has not yet announced the service, but it's set to begin
>quietly operating this week, making Yahoo the first top-tier
>international portal to create a site for Minitel. Initially, Yahoo
>will provide e-mail accounts for people who use Minitel terminals
>located in homes and offices across France. Later, it plans to
>introduce other content, such as news and online chats.
>Yahoo's move is much more than another content deal. It counters
>widespread and inaccurate perceptions of Minitel as an antiquated

Nothing will change user perception of the Minitel - it is antiquated, and slow, and everyone knows that... But, since there are so many of them (see below), it is considered to be normal that it is so slow.

>Ever since vivid graphics appeared on the Web six years ago, Minitel
>has been regarded as a technological relic. Its "dumb terminals"
>can present information only in text format. That means no charts,
>no photos and none of the cool graphics that have become mainstays
>of the Web.
>But that is only half the story. Launched in 1982, Minitel was
>intended to replace phone books and to allow access to information
>services. It quickly grew into the world's first electronic
>marketplace. Thanks to Minitel, France is the only country in which
>both executives and farmers have been banking and transacting online
>for almost 20 years.
>An estimated 25 million people - nearly half the French population
>- currently use the 9 million Minitel terminals to buy train tickets,
>check stock quotes, access news, send e-mail messages or enter chat
>rooms. All those activities generated more than $1.8 billion in
>revenues last year.

While there are indeed 9 million terminals, many people have them in their closets. France Telecom initially gave them away for free (or on free rental) to users to provide a customer base for expensive services. At first, many people used them to chat and look for computer sex; after a while, that slowed down. However, they are still popular for, say, booking train tickets. The French railway, the SNCF, has a very expensive phone number if you want to reserve tickets on the phone (no 800 numbers here), so it is actually cheaper to use the Minitel. And the $1.8 billion in revenue cited above includes train tickets, which are not actually sold on-line, but only reserved. You have to pay at the station.

>A key attribute of Minitel is its billing scheme. Users sign in at
>the various terminals and pay for the time they use the system at
>rates up to $20 per hour. In most cases, the invoice comes along
>with a person's phone bill - and France Telecom (NYSE:FTE - news)
>takes a lofty commission as the collector.
>The prevalence of Minitel gives French people a way to conduct
>their business online and has slowed Internet adoption there. On
>the other hand, the network has created a high level of online
>literacy in France, in turn creating opportunities for Internet

I would have to disagree that it created a high level of online literacy - there is little relationship between a Minitel interface and an Internet interface - think of it as telnetting into a Unix box. It's about that exciting. With the added feature of text-based graphics to slow the display, so you pay more to use it. It also has a unique asynchronic modem, running at 1200 bauds coming in but only 75 bauds going out. (You pay varying rates by the minute - the most common is about $0.17 at today's exchange rate.)

>Yahoo, for example, generates more revenue from classified advertising
>on its regular Web site in France than it does in many other
>countries. "People here have been familiar with online classifieds
>for years," says Philippe Guillanton, managing director of Yahoo
>So, why did Yahoo wait until now to create a customized site that
>is accessible from Minitel terminals? Guillanton says at first the
>company 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. Once that happened, the company decided
>to create another customized site for Minitel. Like other Minitel
>sites, Yahoo will collect usage fees via France Telecom.

The per-minute fees are split between France Telecom and the service. This has created a market in France where you basically pay for everything over the phone. The French don't trust anyone, and the idea that the Internet is essentially free makes them wonder what the catch is... I must say, they certainly were suckers to accept to pay as much as they did for Minitel services.

>Other prominent Internet companies may follow. Even if they don't,
>Yahoo already has validated the much-maligned Minitel. Minitel may
>use outdated technology, but it's an online service with a solid
>business model. That's more than most Internet companies can say.

Well, there's no business model, other than "milk the users". Now, for the service provider, that might be a nice business model, but consumers don't really like it.

The one reason that Minitels still work is that people can use them on their lunch hours in their offices, with their employers paying the bill. I recall, several years ago, working for a major French energy company, that the Minitel was almost always used by several people every day at lunch.

Companies keep them because of the "free" access to the telephone directory. (Free for the first 3 minutes only.) There is no other reason for them to use Minitels. In a country with 95 "departments", each of which has their own directory, there is no other simple way to find a phone number for someone in a different part of France. Nevertheless, individuals do use them to play games and other things. The interface provides little content, although you can use it as a message handling system.


vice versa Translations - French to English, English to French | Technical Writing Traductions francais-anglais, anglais-francais | Redaction technique . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . XNS: =Kirk McElhearn Kirk McElhearn | Chemin de la Lauze | 05600 Guillestre | France

From: Celia Pearce
Date: Wed, 13 Dec 2000 16:53:57 -0800

Tom: Kit Galloway of Electronic Cafe ( had this to say about your Minitel memo. For those who don't know Kit's work, along with Sherrie Rabinowitz, he has been pioneering telepresence since the mid-seventies, including some interesting art projects involving Minitel. I thought it was worth passing on. It also made me think that "Dead Media" should be making way for the corpses of voting machines any day now.

Best Celia Pearce



Interesting stuff.

I think it's good when adequate technologies survive being tainted as dead-tech by the cyber pundits and their overzealous characterization of a Victorian Internet. There is an ecology in extending and reaffirming the life of adequately acculturated technologies, rather than turning them into land-fill just to keep up with fashion, or function. What's the stigma in the advanced and the adequate co-existing. The problem is when only the poor communities are financially disenfranchised from more powerful social technologies that emerge -- like voting machines.

The new tech should underwrite the natural demise of old tech so that aging, but acculturated use of old tech could reach zero cost, and an alternative to always buying the latest stuff. The maintenance can continue through the cannibalization of retired machines until the old tech dies a natural death.

Minitels were almost given away as a replacement to using trees to print phone books, and became a networked market place and social place. Still it's metered a bit too high, so it's no very cheap to use. Certainly the cost has been earned back in the zillions -- so it should now cost 0.

Kit Galloway Electronic Cafe International


Celia Pearce Research Associate, Annenberg Center for Communication Interactive Track Head, Production, School of Cinema-Television University of Southern California 734 West Adams Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90089-7725 Office (Tues, Thurs): direct: 213 743-1945 cel: 310 390-8014 fax: 213 743-2962 Annenberg Center Web Site: Projects: , Personal Web Site: ---