Back in the mid-80s, the idea of transferring funds, checking your email, buying stocks and booking a trip online was all a faraway dream. But if you happened to be in France at the time, you might've already been wired up and doing these things for years -- thanks to the state-subsidized Minitels that were in each and every household. The country was far more interconnected than any other and proud of the text-only terminals, even though government-owned France Telecom monopolized access and you had to be newspaper company to supply any content.
It took off anyway, and soon faux-newspaper companies sprung up everywhere for the not-so-secret purpose of delivering paid Minitel services. They supplied information, financial access, ticketing, online shopping, and even some naughty text-based services (sacré bleu!). At its apogee in 1998, the system generated over a billion dollars a year in revenue, and accounted for nearly 15% of the annual income for online retailers 3 Suisses and La Redoute, to name a couple.
But France can be an insular nation, and Minitel never really spread anywhere else. The internet gave the coup de grace to the system and displaced it, and though it's still accessed by millions each year, France Telecom will pull the plug once and for all this Saturday. Some regret that the nation didn't build on its technological lead, but most French folks will probably remember the boxes nostalgically, knowing that they beat the internet by almost 20 years.
[Image credit: Musée De l'Informatique]