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Tuesday, October 6, 1998 Published at 20:11 GMT 21:11 UK


France's Minitel set for revolution

France's Minitel is finally entering the Internet age

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall
France's ageing Minitel system, combining a basic online text service with the telephone, is set for a revolutionary transformation.

France Telecom and IBM announced on Tuesday they would cooperate to produce a new kind of screen phone providing low-cost Internet access.

IBM chairman Louis Gerstner said they would build the world's first network platform specifically designed for a new generation of Internet devices.

"This partnership represents an important milestone in the development of a truly open and pervasive e-business environment, and we look forward to extending that environment globally," he said.

Hopes for global success

The Minitel terminal was revolutionary itself when it was introduced 15 years ago. But France Telecom believes its successor can be the global sales success that Minitel never was.

The new device will reportedly be cheaper than a personal computer and easier to operate.

Minitel has more than 15 million users and is perhaps the original exponent of e-commerce, allowing customers to pay bills and book train tickets online. Eight hundred thousand terminals were given away at its launch but the French have been paying ever since for the phone access and services offered by more than 25,000 providers.

It has inhibited the growth of the Net in France. Service providers are wary of a World Wide Web where nearly everything is free, and users have preferred the simplicity of Minitel and its French-language system compared to the dominant use of English on the Net.

The system was eventually upgraded to allow access to Internet e-mail and France Telecom announced it was carrying out tests last year with a new set-top box replacement which would give Web access.

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