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<nettime> To-morrow the Minitel! (!)
Patrice Riemens on Mon, 9 Jun 2014 12:30:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> To-morrow the Minitel! (!)

Hi Nettimers,

No FaceBook Aquarium to-day, but a small intermission with the last
chapter of a 1988 French book [*] celebrating the saga of the Minitel,
the unsung predecessor of the Internet as mass connectivity and social
networking device.

So we go down Memory Lane! France, 1988: already close to 4 million
Minitel subscribers - where will this all end? We know - they didn't.
This is what they thought in their time - and they were not always
that far of ... ('Net Neutrality' anyone? ;-)

Cheers, enjoy!

Tomorrow the Minitel

Minitel is the cheapest videotext terminal on the planet [1]. This
is probably the main reason for its success. Its low costs was
undoubtedly conditional to the DGT's strategy (the Direction Générale
des Télécommunications, the French State Telecom Directorate -transl).
In order to achieve this targets, the telecom engineers had to fulfill
two conditions.

One was drastic control on the costs of manufacturing the device.
There, project leader Jean-Paul Maury gave the industrialists involved
the bullying bazar boss treatment. Fighting for every cent spend, he
managed to stay within the budget [**]. Secondly, and in view of the
above, the Minitel's functions' graphical parameters had to be decided
on in a very early stage. That was to be the alpha-mosaic norm. Its
definition is rather lousy. Graphics consist on an assemblage of
little squares, hence sophisticated drawings are out of the question.
But that choice was made necessary in order to achieve a low cost
terminal. However, this decision made the Minitel technically outdated
within 10 years.

Today, in the CNET and CCETT laboratories (more French state research
outfits -transl), engineers are working round the clock on the
next generation of Minitel. These will be compatible with future
communication networks, and will be able to carry ever more complex
content, seamlessly mixing text, quality pictures, and hi-fi sounds.
And today, a number of fresh research options are on hand.

The first one is alpha-geometrical videotext. It allows far better
quality graphical images on the terminal than Minitel. A circle,
for instance, is no longer merely a more or less crude assemblage
of little squares, it is a real circle. The other option is
alpha-photographic videotext. As its name signals, it allows for the
reproduction of previously saved digitalised photo pictures. It will
for instance make possible to check out a realtor's service and see
on screen the pictures of the residences it offers for sale. Finally,
audiovideography, which combines sound and images should make the
development of high graphic quality games or lectures. Something like
a 'talking Minitel', with a high-definition quality of the transmitted

But of course, in order to be transmitted, these new videotext images
will need a better performance, higher speed transmission network.
Well, this network is there already: it is the 'Digital Network with
Integration of Services' ('Réseau Numerique à Intégration de Services,
RNIS) developed by the DGT. Rolling out has started in the Northermost
French department and will be progressively expanded so as to cover
the whole of France by 1990.

RNIS's distinctive feature is dat it carries voice, images, and
data on one and the same network. Once implemented, it will vastly
improve the speed and quality of voice delivery, telematic search,
and computer interaction. IRNIS will put an end to the 'Babel
Tower' inflation of networks currently taking place in the world of

So, instead of de-multiplying the 'pipes' for each and every
application (telephony, Teletel, Teletex, Transpac, Transmic,
Transfix, Transcom etc.) things are simplified through the use of
just one network. All services will be bundled together, whether
they go by the name of telephone, videotex, teletex, tele-copy, or
tele-informatics (modlang: voice, audio/video, telex, fax, computer

And we (will) find this integration format right down to the end-user.
One single socket, the 'S' interface, will allow the connection of
all existing networks onto the telephone's traditional coper wire.
This will be the digital network's entry point into the users' homes.
Hence, no fresh digging up the streets for line-work needed, just a
new socket.

The digitalisation of the networks is for sure one of the greatest
technological revolutions of this end of the century. With it, we
are making fast strides towards the unification of the information
carriers. It will allow for equal access of and to the signal, whether
it originates from a Minitel, a phone, a fax or a computer, by
reducing it to one single base unit: the binary digit (bit).

One can also work out the speed of the different services. Videotex
for instance has a speed of 1220 Bits/second, phone has 64000, a Hi-Fi
device one million, and a color television 34 million. In it's basic
set-up, RNIS will have a network speed of 144 Kb/second. So no way
to have television on it. However, a very much enhanced version of
videotex will transmit without problems.

The transmission speed of pictures on RNIS is simply amazing. It
takes, for instance, only 10 seconds to get a photopicture from any
point of France to a newspaper's head office, whereas current methods
would take one or two minutes. Newspapers are of course very keen
to avail of this high potential, and the regional newspapers more
particularly so, since they shift hundreds of pictures daily between
their various local desks.

For years on end now, engineers at the Rennes 'Centre Commun d'Etudes
de Télévision et Télécommunications (CCETT) have been developing the
'audiovideotex'. It will enable the reach the user with a far better
defined image than is now possible, with next to instant display, and
sound added. This will make possible, e.g., to look up into a database
on Mozart, going for the ouverture of 'Don Giovanni', and then get
an image of the score on screen while at the same time CD quality
digitalised sound plays it out ...

Yet, if the future is indeed spelled RNIS, it will still take a lot
of time before you will see the audiovideotex terminal substitute for
the Minitel. For now, cost is really an obstacle. With the current
small-serie production process, each terminal carries a 25000 Francs
price tag [2] - not really what you would call a mass market item.
Hence, some more efforts are required from industrialists to reduce
the costs further. But there is also a role for the government:
pushing for development and adoption of new services will create a
demand for these terminals, making large scale manufacture attractive
- at a lesser price. When that happens, a RNIS-Minitel will become

But it remains to be seen whether the DGT is prepared to pour in
the same kind of resources as it did for the Minitel. Times have
changed. The stakes are no longer the same - in an era of competition
and de-regulation. On may rather think that it will the (law of)
the market which will decide: the old fashioned voluntarism of the
monopolist is fast on its way out ...

So in all likelihood, a two-speed videotex is the future. The Minitel
as we know it will continue to be there for a larger public, whereas
high-end RNIS videotex terminals will remain the preserve of more
advanced applications, in the professional sphere. Yet, in the
last instance, it will be the creatives' ideas and the end-users'
preferences which will determine what the market will look like.

[*] Sorry folks, I gave the book to Geert for his collection, and I can't
remember the exact data. Couldn't find it on the Net either.

[1] Ex-factory it costs 1000 Francs (inflation corrected something like
?400/US$500 in 2014 value -transl)

[**] Take that, OLPC! - transl
[2] Kinda ?10K/US$12,5K in, again, inflation corrected, 2014 value.

Amsterdam June 8, 2014
Q&D translation by Patrice Riemens

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