Producer Gale Block
Jean-Louis Marque is a researcher with a difference. A lucrative idea gave him plenty of leisure to indulge his passion for the sea.
In a chic Parisian Cafe we met one of the prominent players in French Telematics. Cecile Alvergnat left a career in the media for a risky venture.
Henri de Colbert is a wine-grower, who enjoys offering his products to visiting wine-lovers.
Henri de Colbert, Cecile Alvergnat and Jean-Louis Marque have one thing in common. A massive French project to bring Information Technology into the home.
Today this videotex technology is used by a third of the French population.
By dialling on the telephone, they can connect their Minitel terminals to the Teletel network. Tens of thousands of services are on offer.
This programme uses new and old material to chart the technology's evolution. Some of the sequences were shot in 1995. They follow up on some earlier footage, which the Open University filmed in 1987 ....
In the early 1980's the publicly-owned telecommunications company was backed by the government in a major undertaking. In every local agency, Minitel terminals were given out for free. You didn't have to be rich, although the free terminals offered access to paying services. Today, the revenues look unlikely ever to pay back the initial investment. But the project did put a terminal into millions of homes.
In the telephone exchanges, banks of modems and switching devices administered payment. Calls to most services were premium rated. The cost was charged to the user's phone bill. A proportion of the takings were credited to the service provider. This was called the kiosque system, which is still popular with services today.
"It's very simple. You dial 11 for the directory. You get a tone.
Then you press 'Connection'.
What shall we look for"?
"How about the names of paediatricians for Aurianne"?
One service you didn't have to pay for was the electronic directory. It gave access to addresses and phone numbers throughout France. Even today it's a powerful tool. When it was launched it was hailed as a blueprint for other services which would join the Teletel network.
"In the 14th district ?
Press Paris fourteen and return"
In 1995, the days of the free terminal are over. The Telecommunications operator has been re-named . In the run-up to privatisation, they are offering the directory on a sleeker range of models.
"So here you can see the new Sillage Minitel. It's a trendy device, its a telephone set obviously, it's an answering machine and also its a Minitel with a keyboard. For instance, we can search somebody, Professor Kaye for instance, e volia! And here is the new basic Minitel Magis, another interesting thing in this Minitel is buy any items that you order with your Minitel for instance here, I booked a ticket between Paris and London on Eurostar and with any credit card, like my Visa for instance, I put it on the Minitel and I can pay directly with total security my ticket for London."
"This is a fast speed Minitel, the transmission speed is 9,600 bits per second, that's to say eight times the current speed of Minitel and thanks to that speed we can display photographies, above all the sectors of tourism, real estate, medical applications for instance, here you have an example in the real estate sector. This Minitel is a prototype and the new pattern will be available in September of this year"
Alternatively, you could use a home computer to access any Teletel service.
"If you want to buy a dog, you can go to the service called 'Chadog', that's on the 3615, then first of all if you want to log on 'Chadog' you will for example choose the kind of dog you want, what kind would you like? 'Berger', You want it in region Parisienne? There are 3,108".
What makes a service the average dog owner finds easy to use? In the early 1980's, pioneering service providers were making the first steps to interactivity. Pure information just wasn't enough.
1987 was an exciting time for Cecile Alvergnat. She was running a videotex service called CRAC.
"What excites me? Risk. Innovation, as I've already said - it's something completely new. I started up one day and now were the sixth biggest videotex service in France."
One of Cecile's services was a homework helpline. Pupils could write to experts about problems with their homework. They got an answer within 24 hours.
"When we started, we offered mainly information and databases, things that are more to do with I.T. Then we realised that we were in the media and that's all about communication."
These schoolchildren are coming up to their final, public exams. Some pupils of their age found the homework service helpful - but it didn't always please the parents who were paying by the minute. So the service evolved to meet a more specific need. It's now run by Cecile's son, Loic.
"I run a service for pupils finishing their final year exams. As soon as their exams are over, they can dial up this service and get model answers, or advice and comments on their chosen subjects. This gives them an idea of how they have done, whether they were on the right track".
Cecile still believes that Loic's service could run alongside her old idea of a homework helpline.
"There really was a need, a lot of demand. Now, with the advent of the PC and the new networks, we can offer model answers and exam results on the Teletel network, there's no better way of doing that and do all the rest on the home computer, the Internet and so on. We'll have text, sound and images complementing each other. What excites me today are the new networks. We have the possibility to try out new services and find out which will work. We must take risks again and that's exciting. You cannot be innovative without taking risks."
From risk, to risqué.
In 1989, there was massive demand for recreational services. Telematic communication was in full swing. The potential had been spotted by Jean Louis Marque.
"Antigel succeeded because it was like opening a bar in the desert. There were a lot of thirsty people, and we were the only ones providing water. There are many people for whom relationships with their family and neighbours aren't enough. Using Minitel, people can meet directly, without social barriers. It is responding to a real need".
Antigel was a teletyped chatline. Each user could opt for sections (or rooms) with evocative titles, like Adonis or Venus. There they found several conversations going on at a time. Users who wanted more intimate conversation could go to a private room.
"In the first year we made £600,000 profit. All that profit was reinvested in new equipment and new premises".
Users of this service, Hotline were listed in the code names at the top of the screen. Protected by anonymity, their choice of identity reflected the extent of their imagination. They could say whatever they liked, without controls. This made services like Hotline controversial.
"It's a problem of economics. Chatlines make up 70 per cent of the total traffic. Of course there are databases but what people use are the chatlines. There are 30 to 40 message companies in France, including Antigel, which account for about half the videotex traffic".
In 1995 demand for all types of chatline has dropped. Some customers now favour on-screen games instead. For many, the novelty has gone and the tariffs haven't.
Jean-Louis Marque sold Antigel in 1989. He now thinks that the playful services had a crucial role.
"It gave an extraordinary impulse to Teletel's development. People learned how to use a keyboard which isn't an obvious activity for ordinary people. Games and chatlines taught people how to communicate in this way and everyone has benefited. The possibility of consulting your bank account or the train timetable wouldn't have taken off but for the playful, recreational activities."
From playful to practical. By 1995, the flavour of the most commonly-used Teletel services had changed once more. Useful services are in demand.
In 1987, we visited a company called Telemarket. From their ramshackle warehouse, they were setting themselves up as telematics' answer to the supermarket. It was quite a tall order.
In their favour was a strong French tradition of mail order shopping which could translate to teletel.
On the other hand, it takes a lot of organisation to get perishable items quickly to the customer's door.
In 1995 the company has grown. It now takes hundreds of orders per day. You can place an order by phone or fax, but most customers still favour Minitel.
The system works well in the Parisian Region.
Hard working professional families are prepared to pay for delivery, because it saves them time.
By ordering in the morning, they can get what they want by the afternoon.
If an item is out of stock they'll be informed.
Keeping tabs on stock is a major operation. Picking and packing it all takes a lot of staff.
Add to this the cost of a dedicated fleet of lorries. The idea behind Telemarket could only work in the area round Paris, where demand is high.
Elsewhere in France, people use Teletel to buy less perishable goods, through more traditional mail order companies.
Back in 1987, even the most rural areas were touched by the flurry of telematic activity.
"I own and run Chateau Flaugerues. Vines have been cultivated here since before the Romans. My family has been here for 300 years. And,with our staff, we run the chateau and create the wines we love".
Henri de Colbert was experimenting with l'abbaye des Vins, a direct wine-selling service. Along with other wine producers he took out a page on Teletel as part of his marketing strategy.
"I think it's an excellent way of connecting the wine lovers who make the wine with wine lovers who drink it. A very large number of people can link up. It's modern, practical and convenient. Customers can put in their order without being pestered by salesmen. You can get mass advertising, but direct contact with your customers is difficult to achieve. This service removes the barriers between wine growers and wine lovers".
In 1995, Henri de Colbert uses the old network in new ways. He can dial up the regional weather forecast, using a more recent addition to the network, called Audiotel. Calls are at premium rate, but the service is useful. One service he no longer considers helpful is l'Abbaye des Vins.
"I think it would work for industrially-produced wines, but the wines that we produce are like works of art, something very personal. The prospective buyer needs to get to know the artist's studio, to meet us, and see what we are making. That sort of message is difficult to convey with the minitel alone".
Has the minitel technology reached the end of the line?
The Paris Metro is a typical modern information provider. Passengers often ask questions about itineraries, timetables and tickets.
From a central information office, the Metro answers their questions. The strategy is to use every common technology available in the home.
"Paris Transport Information. Good Morning" "What time do you want to get to Boulogne?"
This man is answering a telephone enquiry using an advanced cartographic system.
"When you get out of the bus, you'll be in Rue Pierre Grenier".
In future, customers will be able to access this information directly using a networked PC.
"then on your left or right is the Rue du Dome."
"Following a passenger incident, there will be delays..."
This man is recording an Audiotel message.
"Extra trains will be running on Line 1 of the Metro. All other lines are running normally".
Minitel is just part of the Metro's overall approach. How does the company see the terminal's role in services of the future?
"The Minitel is the cheapest terminal and the one with the widest distribution. I don't know whether it will be out of date in a few year's time. All I know is that services will sell on terminals as cheap and as easily available as minitels. If in the future, there were to be a PC in every house, flat or office,the PC would be the appropriate terminal, but that's not certain".
The proud commercial images of Teletel today reflect a confidence that at least some aspects of the technology will remain.
"The technology has stopped evolving except for screenphones. People will use it to look up the electronic directory and use practical services like mail order or banking and so on - the sort of service where you just need to look at the data without having to load it into the memory or needing to do a print-out".
The billing system of the past has stood the test of time.
"In the kiosk system, the end user has not to subscribe to the network, has not to subscribe to any services, he can consult when he wants and in a way totally anonymous.
And the information provider is paid directly by France Telecom. So it's a very easy way for the end user to consult the services, and for the information provider to be paid and to be sure to be paid also."
There's a wealth of expertise behind the services themselves. After twelve years in the business, the French think these are second to none.
"Internet so far I think is much more like a computerised memory, and you are like an animal going from one branch to the other, to the other, and I think that customers don't want to jump step by step usually they do know pretty much know what they want, and they want to put their question first and get the computer do all the wandering around".
The service providers aren't sitting still. The advent of new technologies has brought a new period of uncertainty. Something that's familiar to at least one of the pioneers.
"The transmutation is happening fast. Innovation is returning. For quite a few years creativity had stood still because nothing new was being developed. But the expansion of Internet and the Microsoft networks enables creativity to flourish. Publishers will have to design new services with the multimedia revolution in mind. They will have to decide which services are still appropriate to minitel, which should be available on the PC and which on the Internet. We need to think about all of this".
We've watched Teletel develop over nearly a decade. Elsewhere, attempts at providing videotex services haven't been a success. Maybe that's one reason why the French see the technology as a national achievement. But the coming age is one of global networks. Their impact on Teletel has only just begun.
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