[David Strom's Web Informant] Lessons learned from the Minitel era

David Strom david at strom.com
Mon Dec 18 16:01:29 EST 2017

Web Informant, December 18, 2017: Lessons learned from the Minitel era

Technologists tend to forget the lessons learned from the immediate past,
thinking that new tech is always better and more advanced than those dusty
modems of yesteryear. That is why a new book from MIT Press on Minitel
<https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/minitel> is so instructive and so current,
especially as we devolve from a net-neutral world in the weeks and years to
come. Much as I want to be tempted to discuss net neutrality, let’s just
leave those issues aside and look at the history of Minitel and what we can
learn from its era.

Minitel? That French videotext terminal thing from the 1980s and 1990s?
Didn’t that die an ignominious death from the Internet? Yes, that is all
true. But for its day, it was ahead of its time and ahead of today’s
Internet in some aspects too. You’ll see what I mean when you consider its
content and micropayments, network infrastructure, and its hybrid
public/private ownership model. Let’s dive in.

Minitel was the first time anyone figured out how to develop a third-party
payments system called Kiosk that made it easier for content providers to
get paid for their work, and laid the foundation for the Apple App Store
and others of its ilk. It presaged the rise of net porn well before various
Internet newsgroups and websites gained popularity, and what was remarkable
was that people paid money for this content too.  It was the first time a
decentralized network could hook up a variety of public clients and servers
of different types. Granted the clients were 1200 bps terminals and the
network was X.25, but still this was being done before anyone had even
thought of the Web. It was the first public/private tech partnership of any
great size: millions of ordinary citizens had terminals (granted they got
them free of charge) well before AOL sent out its first CD and before the
first private dot coms were registered. The authors call this “private
innovation decentralized to the edges of the network.” This is different
from what the Internet basically did beginning in the middle 1990s, which
was to privatize the network core. Before then, the Internet was still the
province of the US government and had limited private access.

Minitel made possible a whole series of innovations well before their
Internet-equivalents caught on, sometimes decades earlier. The book
describes a whole series of them, including e-government access, ecommerce,
online dating, online grocery ordering, emjois and online slang, electronic
event ticketing and electronic banking. When you realize that at its peak
Minitel had 25,000 services running, something that the Web wouldn’t reach
until 1995, it is a significant accomplishment.

Minitel wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Like AOL, it was a “walled
garden” approach, but in some aspects it was more open than today’s
Internet in ways that I will get to in a moment. It had issues being
controlled by a nationalized phone company.

Certainly, the all-IP Internet was a big improvement over Minitel. You
didn’t have to provision those screwy and expensive X.25 circuits. You
could send real graphics, not those cartoon ones that videotext terminals
used that were more like ASCII art. Minitel was priced by the minute,
because that is what the phone company knew how to do things. Certainly,
the early days of the Internet had plenty of 1200 bps modem users who had
to pay per call, or set up a separate phone line for their modems. Now we
at least don’t have to deal with that with broadband networks that are
thousands of times faster.

One side note on network speeds: Minitel actually had two speeds: 1200 and
75 bps. Most of the time, the circuits were set up 1200/75 down/up. You
could send a signal to switch the speeds if you were sending more than you
were receiving, but that had to happen under app control.

So what can we learn from Minitel going into the future? While most of us
think of Minitel as a quaint historical curio that belongs next to the
Instamatic camera and the Watt steam engine, it was far ahead of its time.
Minitel was also a cash infusion that enabled France to modernize and
digitize its aging phone infrastructure. It was the first nationalized
online environment, available to everyone in France. It proved that a state
subsidy could foster innovation, as long as that subsidy was applied
surgically and with care.  As the authors state, “sometimes complete
control of network infrastructure by the private sector stifles rather than
supports creativity and innovation.”

When we compare Minitel to today’s online world, we can see that the
concept of open systems is a multi-dimensional continuum, and that it is
hard to judge whether Minitel and the Internet are more or less open.  As
we begin the migration of a neutral Internet infrastructure to one that
will be controlled by the content providers, we should keep that in mind.
The companies that control the content have different motivations from the
users who consume that content. I do think we will see a vastly different
Internet in 30 years’ time, just as the Internet of 1987 is very different
from the one we all use today.

Comments always welcome here: http://blog.strom.com/wp/?p=6310
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