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J'aime le Minitel ! - Lessons from France's internet ancestor for today's designers.


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In the early eighties, the French government launched MINITEL, a system of connected terminals for consumer home use. While extremely limited technologically by today's standards, it enabled mainstream access to online directories, chats, stores, email and banking more than a decade before the web became widespread. We will look at what interacting with this system was like, why it stayed popular long after the web existed, and the many lessons it holds for today's designers.

Presentation given to the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in London on September 25, 2013

Published in: Internet
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J'aime le Minitel ! - Lessons from France's internet ancestor for today's designers.

  1. 1. J’aime le Minitel Fabien Marry - @Fabien_UX 1 NOTE: Slideshare is now pretty 💩 and randomly ignores many links in my slides, including important ones to videos, and you can’t even copy from the URLs on the slides. :( You’ll find these URLs again in the notes under the slides, so please copy them from there.
  2. 2. 2 1. Minitel?
  3. 3. 3 techniques/nouvelles- technologies/CAA7800628501/informatique-rapport- In 1978, the president of France ordered a report on the future of computing technology. It described the merging of computer and telephone technologies to enable data service for consumers, and the deep economic, political and social change they would cause. It also argued that France needed to invest and take the lead or be left behind. Received with skepticism by the public (as you can see from the expression of the host of this news report), it was correctly announcing the forthcoming digital revolution. “I have here a report, a report that's quite... quite daunting. Report on the computerisation of society. Telematics it's called. It's the new era, announced in this very report that has been published today by Mrs Simon Nora and Alain Minc. A report written at the request of the President of the Republic…”
  4. 4. 4 Development • Two research centres (CNET & CCETT) combine forces. • Several small scale experiments conducted. Thomson Vidéotex Terminal used during the Vélizy experiment, 1979 At this time cutting edge companies were still state owned, so they could be directly directed to experiment following this report’s recommendations. The first version of the service used a TV set, before integrating the monitor into the device itself.
  5. 5. 5 M.I.N.I.TEL. Medium Intéractif par Numérisation d’Information TÉLéphonique (= Interactive medium by digitising telephone information) MINITEL was born!
  6. 6. 6 Minitel 1, 1982
  7. 7. Fabien Marry - @Fabien_UX 7 Tech specs Display Text matrix, 25 lines of 40 columns, 8 levels of grey Input AZERTY Keyboard with function keys Bandwidth 1200 bits/s download, 75 bit/s upload Storage None Its tech specs were really modest…
  8. 8. Fabien Marry - @Fabien_UX 8 Requirement / Pricing model Installation Plug and play Technical requirement Any phone line Initial Investment required None! Price Free then around £1 / month + £ 0.16/min, taken from the next phone bill …but its low requirements and innovative pricing model made it very accessible.
  9. 9. 9 2. Using a Minitel
  10. 10. 10 Présentation du Minitel,
  11. 11. 11 The killer app, a phone directory, shows its typical interaction model: - plain text fields forms - dedicated hardware keys for next, previous, delete, help and submit.
  12. 12. Fabien Marry - @Fabien_UX 12 Using minitel Screens with basic ASCII graphics loaded line by line, and you could pick navigation options by entering a character code. Importantly, you could send these key before the screen was fully loaded so for frequent tasks yo could memorise the sequence and go much faster.
  13. 13. 13 3. Mainstream impact
  14. 14. 14
  15. 15. 15 Peaked in the 1990s, but still going strong during the 2000s, until the plug was pulled in… 2012!
  16. 16. Fabien Marry - @Fabien_UX 16 36 15 Anything • Phone directory • Shopping (mail order and transport) • Transport schedules • Stock trading • Banking • Exam results • Company database access • Entertainment (quizzes) • Even 36 15 Santa Claus • SMS, email • 25 000 services at its peak
  17. 17. Fabien Marry - @Fabien_UX 17 Minitel Rose Another killer app was Minitel “rose” (= pink), adult services that had billboards ads everywhere.
  18. 18. 18 The experience they offered was a simple messaging system between users, but the space they offered and the perceived anonymity opened new horizons… while the expensive (and delayed!) billing per minute made them a goldmine for providers. 3615 ULLA sur le minitel,
  19. 19. 19 4. Why keep using a Minitel... in 2012?
  20. 20. 20 Meet Christian Marry • My dad • Optimal name for SEO camouflage • Quite technophobic • Die-hard minitel user (eventually)
  21. 21. 21 This is where he lives, on the French border with Belgium, in the middle of the Ardennes forest. When carriers say they cover 99.9% of the population… well this is the 0.1%! Even now, getting mobile phone signal is rare and depends on the winds. Sometime you get a French networks, sometimes a Belgian. Closest bakery is 5 miles away. Dad’d bank is 20 miles away, open only 4 days a week. Yet he could bank immediately anytime thanks to his cheap simple to use and cheap
  22. 22. 22 Minitel was more affordable and usable than a PC • No entry cost VS £ 1200 for a PC. • No setup, always works. • Instant start. • No viruses, no software updates, no maintenance EVER. • Stop working? Exchange it for free. • Mono tasking with few options at a time.
  23. 23. 23 This is the white pages on MINITEL, pretty much as they were from 1984 to 2012. A few fields, simply can’t get it wrong.
  24. 24. 24 This is the current modern version, a monstrosity of a webpage filled with irrelevant garbage. Is this what 30 years of technological progress have given us?
  25. 25. 25
  26. 26. 26 5. Legacy
  27. 27. 27 Legacy • A country familiar with online uses... • ... but clinging to a dying platform for too long. • At the origin of the JPEG file format. • Inspired many, from S. Jobs to A. Gore. • Many key players of the French web made their money on Minitel (rose!), including Xavier Niel, who went on to fun the “Free” ISP in France and his innovative start up school 42 (
  28. 28. 28 Legacy: a business model • Subsidised devices, charge for services. • Carrier / editor revenue sharing. • Carrier billing. • Devices with zero or low maintenance. • Stripped down software highly focussed on key task. In many ways, MINITEL pioneered the business model that would later enable the Smartphone revolution.
  29. 29. 29 5. Key lessons
  30. 30. 30 Keys to a platform success • Test at small scale and iterate first • Reduce barriers to entry (financial, technical, contractual) • Have a killer app • Build-in a business model • Provide access to “porn” • Government support and monopolies can help... until things go global.
  31. 31. 31 Minitel First ™ design • Relentlessly focus your product on solving core user needs. • Would that line of text deserve waiting 3 seconds to load it? • Don’t let your product get obese overdosing on nice things. • Simpler often means more usable. • Start with lowest tech, and use progressive enhancements. You could write a book on why thinking MINITEL first would help you make a great product. - with respects to Luke Wroblewski’s “Mobile First” ;-)
  32. 32. 32 Merci ! Fabien Marry @Fabien_UX