France. No other nation is more maligned by Americans, especially technologically literate Americans. In an era where everything boils down to chaos theory, decentralization and endless examples of why systems "out of control" are always best -- France stands out as the last bastion of centralized command and control, a nation still dreaming of Napoleon. Usually presented as hopelessly paranoid about American cultural imperialism, the French stand accused of petty whining and of being sore losers in the world culture wars. But wait. In our haste to mock, we're missing something. France turns out to be the most wired nation in the world.
I want my Minitel
Visit France and will you find something strange -- every fourth home has a computer terminal connected to a phone line. These terminals, known as Minitel, are ubiquitous, appearing in the den, living room, bathroom -- just about anywhere you can stick a phone jack. This kind of penetration leaves the US in the dust; only about 10% of US households are online. Up until last year, France prided itself on its own particular brand of I-way. Today, it is no longer so confident. Minitel has discovered a nemesis called Internet. The stakes are high: the French government sees Minitel as a unique, and successful part of what makes France French and they're unwilling to cave in to that "American network" which they argue is just another leg of the global octopus known as American culture. But the French, unlike their government, don't seem to agree. For the last 8 months, Paris has buzzed with talk about "l'autoroute informatique Americain," or, more simply "l'internet." In this looming confrontation are good clues and examples of how to build networks -- especially easy-to-use networks with secure financial transactions -- clues that American corporations should study if they want to create an electronic agora.
The roots of Minitel lie in government planning. In 1984 the French government decided the future was digital. They pictured a world pretty similar to that Al Gore presented us with in 1992. Gore's solution, the National Information Infrastructure, took a lot from its French cousin, especially the idea that such a network was essential for the nation's economic well-being and should, therefore, be created along universal standards open to all, something which governments are well-suited to oversee. But that's about the end of their similarities. Unlike the US, the French set out to create an extension of an existing government monopoly; the phone company France Telecom, would administer and build this new electronic network.
In one year, France Telecom gave away one million Minitel terminals. The initial hook was simple: they could be used as free electronic yellow pages. Accessing data at 1200 bits per second, the Minitel used a text-only interface. The slow speed didn't matter then, since the era of GUI interfaces had barely begun. Back in the US, the Internet was still a phantom off the radar screen -- it had just converted over to TCP/IP little more than a year before (January 1, 1983) and commercial US services didn't look all that different from Minitel either.
One Way I-Way
Today the latest Minitel, named Magis, runs at 9600 bps and has a built-in bank card reader. Consequently, in 1994, 65% of all orders place