VideoTel - The Network that Wasn't, and what if it was?


This originally appears in a retro computing community thread I started[1] for the sake of discussion and a mental excersize. I am posting here because I feel Gemini needs more content. Plus, the Ctrl-C Community[2] will be the first ones to get linked to the stand-alone article, as I feel they will find the content interesting.

[1]RetroComputingForum thread 'A Game of What if VideoTel Actually Succeeded'

[2]Ctrl-C Pubnix Community

[2b] Ctrl-C's main gemini directory.

Minitel - The French Connection

Wikipedia Article on Minitel

For those not wanting to read a wiki article or watch youtube? Minitel was france in the 70's going 'OMG our national phone system is all kinds of old, and we're relying on too many outside companies for our computing which is bad because they won't sell to us because the US government told them not to.' Then they set to work not just modernizing thier telephone network, but also managed to do in the 80's what the rest of the world wouldn't get til the smart phone; a population that treated computing as just a normal part of life.

Alright. We all know it didn't work in the United States. What isn't widely known is there were a couple attempts at making it work. The wiki article mentions a limited rollout in San Francisco and a couple other places in the early 90's. I'd seen a few other articles mention these attempts in passing, but always as a footnote. i don't know who's referencing who here given it's always a passing mention at best. 'Oh hey this was tried and it fell on its face lol.'

This is just a bit of me going off what i know both from scattershot memories of the time and scattershot research of the time. Feel free to throw popcorn at me as i inevitably get things wrong. I am simply trying to scratch an itch I've had when looking at retro computing and the history of networking, and attempt to provide a hypothetical for, 'What if attempts at bringing Minitel hadn't completely fallen on their face?'

Or perhaps more charitably:

'What if Minitel had succeeded in America?'

Theft, Spite, and Fears of Being Left Behind

For this to even have a hope of happening this has to happen roughly concurrent to when minitel launches in france as opposed to in the 90's, and rolled out in a wide enough scale that a userbase exists to commercialize as opposed to a single city half hearted rollout where nobody sees it as something serious.

So, we need to go back to the origin point of Minitel. Namely, we are going to the 1978 report to President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, titled 'The Computerization of Society', in which government researchers Simon Nora and Alain Minc argued that the solution to France’s telecom woes lay in “telematics”—a combination of 'telecommunications' and 'informatics'.

Essentially a fancy way of going 'Hey these new computers? Why not hook them up to the phone system not just on the back end for switching but at the customer facing side where they can do more than just talk on a phone.

Before 'you' go on that this was a classified report that nobody else would have had access to except for a select few people? Here it is in a book released in 1980[3].

Realistically speaking even if there were only a few months between that report being allowed to be published and the book being made rather than it being on the desks of other people near immediately? That's still only a couple years out of step.

Mind you this is the same era when KeyFax [4] was a thing that was tried (seriously why did we never gert a Ceefax type system here?)

I'm getting side-tracked.

There is one major factor that is this looming bell shaped shadow that hangs over whether this entire concept succeeds or not. Ma Bell. One of if not the only allowed monopolies in the US.

By the mid-80's though Ma Bell was shattered into regional 'baby bell' networks. The process started in the mid 70's, but the 'baby bell' splinter segments wouldn't have happened til a decade later in 1984. This leaves a national phone system but one that was in the process of being busted.

This leaves us in a tricky spot. There is no way to have the concept of a consumer faced series of terminals happen before then, because even the most bare bones basic dumb terminal would have been expensive and bulky. They wouldn't have shrunk down in terms of components or cost til the 80's, at least for uses beyond enthusiast level 'price is no object I think that's cool' types.

So here we have AT&T getting told to break up in the 70's, and then this french thing comes along while that is happening. The easy way to have this hypothetical happen is just clap twice and let it be done.

More realistically this could have been on desks months after the initial report hit the french preesident's desks, but sat there languishing because 'why would we want to make something that we're just going to have to give up or spin off?'

The simplest explanation I can come up with on why this concept might have been acted on is simple good old fashioned Greed. Fine, the baby bells wouldn't be able to control this technology and would 'just' be the transport layer. However, they would be getting money from the company that would be spun up, and nothing is stopping them from having their own pricing schemes for tiers of service above and beyond 'basic' directory lookups, deaf/hardo f hearing teletext, and anything that they would be legally mandated as part of a 'common good' to adhere to.

One advantage of being late to the party, but fashionably late as opposed to showing up when everyone's already passed out drunk, is that they could look at what the french were doing and essentially copy their homework. Now they couldn't just order french minitel terminals, both because of national mandates that these terminals be made by french companies for french customers but also because of sheer volume in how many would be needed, but they could look at the components to piggyback off the french's research and skip to the end product.

There would be accusations made that americans were trying to co-opt what they were doing, but I feel an agrement couldh ave been reached. Establish a standard everyone's systems could agree on as a minamum compatibility. The french gets a cash infusion to speed up adoption as well as a potential ability for their system to have even more value by being able to 'speak' with the american's system. the US gets to, relatively cheaply and quickly, get their hands on not just the customer facing units but the service side hardware and how to make it all work.

This is important because without a large customer base nobody is going to want to offer services, and withotu services there is no customer base. Unlike the French the US Government isn't directly doing anything beyond regulation.

So while this service, let's just call it VideoTel for the service that was attempted stateside, would have to basically find a way to stand on its own without getting direct government grants, it probably will get tax incentives along with major companies signing up. kinda like how comcast got billions in subsedies to improve US infrastructure then just kinda laughed in everyone's faces when they just took the money and .... didn't.

[3] Worldcat Entry for the 1978's 'The Computerization of Society'

[4] Youtube video explaining what KeyFax is.

VideoTel gone National

Now imagine that, but nation-wide.

'You' a hypothetical person who had signed up to VideoTel via your local Bell phone company would have probably close to a twenty dollar increase to your phone bill. Fifteen for the service, as some commercials indicated, and an additional five for 'fees.' Essentially taking the route comcast and other cable telecos. Except this wasn't some regional toy that only a few enthusiests would be interested in. This wouldn't be something tried out in a single city or even a single bell system, but rolled out nation wide.


Minitel seemed to have a per-minute charge rate, much like american long distance and 1-900 numbers behave. I believe VideoTel, had it happened in the early 80's instead of late 80's/early 90's would have adopted a similar model at first. Thus encouraging a 'get in, get what you need, and get out' mode of operation. However, I also feel they probably would have gone throug hthe same sort of complicated time of day/distance model that early cell services went through. Come to think of it, early ISP's also charged by the minute.

Terminals and accessories.

Then on top of that there are so many ways of milking the public on terminal options. You'd have to give out a terminal as part of the service, much like how [Name-Of-Teleco] will 'give' you a router along with their service. Except it's totally theirs and you're on the hook if it breaks. Same reason there as with free or deeply discounted cellphones with contract service. People who don't have the equipment won't want the service if they can't cheaply and or readily use it.

But why would they want to limit themselves to these? Once the foot is in the door and videotel as a service proves to be successful they'll absolutely partner with the big computer networks of the day or at least peripheral makers to create videotel branded modems and software. Because price is an object this will probably rely on existing standards and thus it won't take long for enterprising enthusiests to realize that this is a goldmine for setting up and expanding their own BBS and other such services.

So you'll end up with the basic modem, and then everything being sold from apple to commodore to tandy having software either explicitely from VideoTel written, or from enthusiests who want their platform serviced.


So they can upsell on graphics and sound.

What did you think that snobbery over pretty graphics and multi media experiance was new? Haha that's adorable. theyr'e gonna do everything possible to keep oeople interested, since the novelty of it just existing is going t owear off prett yfast.

Plus imagine businesses and education cozying up for reduced rates, or an alloted amount of time free plus reduced rates. Think of it ilike this You dial in to work. Enter yoru employee number, and can essentially have access to an internal email and or chat based system. Same thing with education. French universities all but required students to sign up via minitel, so I can see the practice becoming an option.

Or a student doing homework or testing remotely and being able to print the hardcopy at school.

A bit pie in the sky, but given what has happened in just hte years following the pandemic with attempts at remote work and remote school? I can see attempts at what we would see as watered down attempts at these things.

BBS's March Onward

Regardless on any publicp erceptions, the bulliten board systems that had sprung up before this point would adapt rather than die. Unlike the web, they have a roughly similar set of strengths and weaknesses with one very important additional strength. So long as you are within the 'local' bubble of a BBS, or at least have a local BBS to dial into that's part of FIDOnet? It's absolutely free. It is also private beyond the fact the phone company knows you dialed a specific number.

So, while I can see many being perfectly happy sticking to VideoTel's offerings? There will always be those that want to tinker. . Though if I am going to be perfectly blunt? If VideoTel offers TradeWars, Mafia, and Legend of the Red Dragon? That's going to suck in a lot of people, enthusiest or otherwise.

Even in the late 90's I had classmates that would log into a BBS from school to play LoRD.

OK so What Changes?

Ironically? If one were to come to an 2023 there probably wouldn't be much visible diffrence. Smart Phones, Web 2.0, social media networks, all of that would still be in full swing.

The key changes would be how we got to this point and the discussions in the 2010's over net neutrality, and file sharing in the 2000's probably would have happened in the late 80's and certainly in the 90's.

Think of it. Here is thsi big business centric network that can outright decide who gets to be part of it or not both in terms of customers and services in an era when ARPAnet had strict non-commercial policies. BBS's were a thing by this point. Heck CBBS, the first one, went online in 1978. So BBS's would have still been a thing. The big change is that there probably would have been incentives to make 'your' BBS compatible with the VideoTel service if you wanted to make money off of it, and FIDONet being seen as an alternative, possibly gaining a sort of punk anti-establishment edge to it in popular culture specifically because it was the home grown alternative that came about as a result of long distance pricing.

All this and the concept of hypertext hadn't happened yet.

Speaking of. minitel had as its protocol bi-directionality baked in from the start, as opposed to HTML being a very unidirectional affair before additions got bolted on. Would a wide-spread american adoption of videotel have affected HTML? Hard to say.

The really fascinating thing, to me, is that we would have had the conversations over the past decade probably thirty years sooner.



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