Computer history with a French slant

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18610692 is an entertaining account of an important component in the development of online services – even if it looks like something of an anomaly within the broader history of the Internet and related networks.  Minitel provided a set of service to France Telecom’s customers using dial-up modems which now look incredibly slow and using simple table-top terminals.  The French PTT (posts, telegraphs, and telephones), as it then was, clearly understood the importance of building a critical mass of users who would ensure the development of a network and the availability of services.  Minitel developed, not just through the more or less respectable services alluded to in the  BBC article, but also because it was available as a tool for directory inquiries as an alternative to a set of paper phone books.  Also (not mentioned in the article) part of the context was an atrocious and dated phone network in the 1970s, which made it a priority for the Giscard D’Escaing government to invest in its improvement.

While the service was most popular in France, as the article mentions there were equivalents in other coutries including the UK.  Arguably the principle owed a fair amount to work by the British engineer Sam Fedida, who developed the British equivalent, Prestel, at British Telecom Research Labs in Martlesham Heath in Suffolk.  In Britain as in France postal and phone services were under the same ownership until around 1980, so Fedida had at one time been employed by the Post Office.  One important part of the design was to split the capacity of a communication link asymmetrically between two directions, so that the connection is faster one way than the other, a principle still followed by many broadband connections.

Prestel never took off as a household tool in Britain.  But it did achieve remarkable success among one particular group of niche users.  Travel agents (remember them) did find it a useful network and built up a kind of closed user group.  And the Bank of Scotland developed an online banking services using Minitel-style terminals, long before Internet banking as we know it came into use.  So Minitel perhaps had more impact than we tend to recognise.

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