NASA Retires Shuttle; France Telecom Guillotines Minitel

The lives of 2 technological marvels came to a close this week. First, NASA officially concluded the space shuttle program with the final flight of Atlantis.

Then, France Telecom announced the imminent demise of Minitel. Sacre Bleu! What next? Will the United Kingdom phase out afternoon tea and the Royal Family?

If you’re under 35 years of age, especially if you have never visited France, you may never have heard of Minitel. About ten years before the mainstream arrival of the World Wide Web and Mosaic, the first internet browser, there was Minitel. The Minitel network offered France Telecom subscribers a host of internet-like services such as email, white-pages, news and information services,  message boards, train reservations, airline schedules, stock quotes and online purchases. Users leased small, custom terminals for free that connected via telephone line. Think prehistoric internet services: no hyperlinks, no fancy search engines, no rich graphics and no multimedia — that was Minitel.

Though rudimentary, Minitel was clearly ahead of its time and garnered a wide and loyal following in France. France Telecom delivered millions of terminals for free to household and business telephone subscribers. By 2000, France Telecom estimates that almost 9 million terminals, covering 25 million people or over 41 percent of the French population, still had access to the Minitel network. Deploying the Minitel service allowed France Telecom to replace printed white-pages directories given to all its customers with a free, online Minitel version.

The Minitel equipment included a basic dumb terminal with a text based screen, keyboard and modem. The modem transmission speed was a rather slow 75 bits per second (upstream) and 1,200 bits per second (downstream). This compares with today’s basic broad speeds of 1 Mbit per second (upstream) and 4 Mbits per second (downstream).

In a bow to Minitel’s more attractive siblings, the internet and the World Wide Web, France Telecom finally plans to retire the service on the June 30, 2012.

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons.[end-div]