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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 September, 2003, 08:15 GMT 09:15 UK
France's Minitel lives on
France's ageing Minitel network has been given a new lease of life by hooking it up to the internet, as BBC ClickOnline's David Reid reports.

Minitel terminal
Minitel: Quaint relic or modern business tool?
Minitel may be an ugly duckling, but it was a precocious one when it was officially launched in 1983, intended to save money on telephone directories.

While the rest of the world was marvelling at fax machines, the French were using this precursor to the internet to electronically search France Telecom's database of names, addresses and numbers, as well as sending messages to one another.

Accessed over telephone lines with tiny, low-cost terminals, the Minitel network is a tool that the French have grown up with.

"It's been working for a long time with the same interface," said Vincent Barnaud of France Telecom.

"This is very different from the internet. With the internet you are excited because it is going to be different every time, or almost every time, you connect.

"With Minitel it is exactly the opposite. It is always the same. So your grandmother can explain how it works and it will be the same the next time you connect."

French love affair

For people like Annick Pelletier, an accountant who works from home, Minitel provides a valuable service. She is not fazed by the internet, but just finds Minitel quicker and easier with its no nonsense, no frills display.

"The problem with the internet is that unless you know exactly what you are searching for you end up with a tonne of stuff and you have to spend ages sorting through it to find what you want," said Ms Pelletier.

Minitel terminal
Easy to use, no-frills terminals
France's love affair with Minitel soared in the late eighties with pink Minitel, whose terminals were used as chat lines for anonymous flirting.

Now exchanges are more likely to be financial. Transactions go through France Telecom and appear on the phone bill.

Unlike much e-commerce, Minitel has generated both profit and trust.

"Minitel is a system people trust because the service is provided by the operator, so the users do not feel like they are shopping," said France Telecom's Vincent Barnaud.

"They just connect to the service. They know it will be there. They know they can't be cheated because they trust the operator and the excellence of the service, and they get the information and they go away."

Net marriage

It has taken the internet some time to catch up with Minitel. It was not until last year that the number of French using the net outstripped those using Minitel.

To a generation brought up on computers and the net, this clunky data communications system may have the feel of a dusty museum piece.

Minitel has now been swamped by the appeal of modern software and seems a species in need of protection.

This is perhaps why France Telecom is now trying to widen Minitel's appeal to a younger audience. It has put together a package of software to make Minitel available on the internet.

One service makes websites available as simple text on a Minitel terminal, while another service lets net subscribers visit Minitel sites.

This has breathed new life into the ageing piece of technology. Despite reports of its demise, a third of the French still have access to the Minitel network and four million terminals are in daily use.

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