Sunday, July 08, 2012

Looking Back Helps Envision the Future


Last week marked the end of an era for a little known technology that in several ways set the stage for many services and tasks we now do on the Internet.  First developed in France in the late 1970s and installed in most every home in France beginning in the 1980s, the Minitel terminal was a technical marvel developed in a country not known for high tech advances.   State owned France Telecom has announced that it will cease operating the service at the end of June.

At the outset, millions of small Minitel terminals were distributed free to businesses and households throughout France and connected to the wired phone network.  The devices resembled small laptop computers with keyboards and mini TV screens instead of the standard flat screens that we now have.  At first the main function was to replace the printed phone directory with an electronic version but the service was soon expanded to include news reports.   The screens had no graphics or color but displayed only text.

While this system might seem crude by today‚Äôs standards, in the 1980s it was cutting edge.  Services soon came online to purchase airline and hotel tickets, check movies schedules and even order items from stores.  All of this before the development of the Internet and all of this traffic was being carried on the existing telephone network.

Of course since this was a closed system, the connections were restricted to other Minitel devices and only very recently were some of the services made available to Internet connected devices. 

There is great debate in France weather the Minitel network helped advance Internet penetration or held back its development.  For sure France Telecom had a lot invested in this closed system and as such was in no hurry to abandon it.  In the end, however, the limited nature of the Minitel network was its own undoing.

They say that hind sight is 20/20 but it can also help us envision the future.  If the Minitel service morphed into the Internet and all of the extraordinary things it offers us today, most likely looking ahead 30 years we will have devices and services that will make our iPhones and Adroids, our Macbooks, Kindles and iPads seem as obsolete and quaint as the Minitel.

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