In addition to being the first day of the 2012 Tour de France, yesterday marked another milestone in France. It marked the end of the Minitel on-line service, a dial-up information system started in 1978 by the French PTT (Poste, Téléphone et Télécommunications). Before there was a Web, and long before the Web was generally available, the little Minitel terminals were a very common sight in French businesses and homes.
If you are old enough to have used one of the early on-line services in the US, such as CompuServe, Delphi, or Prodigy, you will have a rough idea of the kind of service that Minitel provided. Initially, at least, the terminals were provided free to telephone subscribers, as a replacement for paper telephone directories. Lots of other services became available, too; as with the early US services, users were typically charged for usage time. There were weather forecasts, financial data (commodity price information was popular with farmers), and chat forums. I can remember visiting friends in Paris in the mid-1980s, and using the Minitel to check the latest results from the Tour de France, and to make reservations on the TGV train service to Lyons. The service certainly did not have the polish of Web services today, but it was a big improvement over having to go stand in line at the railway station.
Ars Technica has an article looking back on Minitel; it includes an amusing illustration of one enthusiast’s imagined Minitel version of Facebook.