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France Telecom is finally pulling the plug on the 26-year-old Minitel service, which it launched in France in 1982. (Actually, Minitel is really 15 years older than that according to SEC filings: “Under an advertising sales agreement entered into in 1967, France Telecom granted PagesJaunes exclusive rights to canvas and collate the advertising to be incorporated within the telephone directory and the alphabetically classified Minitel service.”) Minitel was to replace the White Pages, but not the Yellow Pages.

According to Wikipedia, France Telecom estimated that almost 9 million terminals had access to the Minitel network at the end of 1999 and it was used by 45 percent of the French population. Originally Minitel was seen as a model for mass deployment of interactive terminals and electronic services. The first 4.5 million terminals were provided at no cost as incentive to use a nationwide, electronic telephone directory. They then started to add a variety of interactive services to allow users to shop for retail products and transportation services, as well as access databases, information services and message boards.

In 1992, Donald Mackenzie, president of Nynex Information Resources Co. (Yellow Pages for New York and New England), told The Kelsey Report, “My view is that now Minitel is online and I want to ask my brethren in the directory business if they would like to share the information and the costs to develop it into a national Yellow Pages product in the U.S.” At the same time, other RBOCs and independent companies were evaluating electronic delivery of information, but no one in the U.S. anticipated replacing the print product with an electronic product. US WEST adopted Minitel to buy into its electronic directory services as a backbone to its videotex application.

By 1997, Minitel had peaked as the Internet provided a more robust platform. Minitel users, not unlike the people who are addicted to a soap opera, resisted fiercely because they thought, in part, that Minitel was their own. The service was judged to be a success in terms of accomplishing several of France Telecom’s objectives, even though it was not a business model that could be transferred to other countries. Today, according to France Telecom’s most recent quarterly report, Minitel revenues totaled only 4.5 million euros in the first half of 2008, down 69.4 percent compared with the first half of 2007.

The electronic information services industry owes a great deal to Minitel. May it rest in peace when it is discontinued at the end of March 2009.

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