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 placed through Minitel were paid by bank card (France does not have credit cards, instead they use the equivalent of ATM cards for all transactions), something commercial Web users still dream of. Some 23,000 commercial services are now on the Minitel network, and the total volume of revenue from transactions stands at 7 billion Francs (about US $1.4 billion.) On the high- end, there is an ISDN service called Numeris which offers connections at 128 kbps. Fees for the slower terminals remain modest, about $5 a month to subscribe, plus usage charges that vary from free to $3 or more a minute for "numeros rose" -- text-only Minitel erotica -- the equivalent of 900 numbers.
Where Minitel is strongest, the Internet is weakest: financial transactions and ease of use. Where the Internet is strongest the Minitel is weakest: multimedia and interactivity. Interactivity is the salient and essential difference between these two networks, and it is why the French people are bored with Minitel. The fundamental power of Internet is that there is no division between producer and consumer of information. This newsletter is just one example. With Minitel you cannot create home pages, listservers, news groups or any of the tools which turn Internet into a collective of like- minded people and interests. With Minitel all you can do is shop -- for goods, services or information. That gets boring.
Unfortunately, the French government does not understand this fact. Instead, they perceive the Net in two completely wrong ways -- as something "owned" by the US government and as an English-only juggernaut. The official party line is presented in a book titled "Les Autoroutes de L'Information"("Information Highways", published in 1994 by La documentation Francaise, in French only). Written by Gerard Thery, the official that oversaw the Minitel's roll-out in 1984, the report makes for glum, and ultimately stupid, reading. The government in this report utterly fails to take into account the question of person-to-person communication -- the essential backbone of the Net. By the end of the 125 page report there is not one mention of enabling French citizens to create and administer their own sources of information. They are, instead, expected to remain complacent consumers on a one-way I-way -- an I-way that, according to Thery, will ultimately lead to what he calls the "eldorado" -- video-conferencing.
For the French government, video-conferencing is the prize on the horizon, their presumed killer app. Yawn. Meanwhile, France Telecom, the world's fourth largest phone company, basks in the final days before complete extinction -- a bloated monopolistic anomaly flush with fresh subsidies. The French government, flouting the requirements of the European Community, are dragging their feet on deregulation of their telephone industry (one out of four French people work for the government, the phone company is an important source of revenue and social stability. No one wants to mess with it.)
There are attempts at change coming from unexpected quarters. France Telecom is working on creating a service called "Kiosque Micro" for French PCs to connect to Minitel via regular modems. However, connecting to Internet from Minitel is a big no-no. For the French to get Net access they must find an Internet service provider, something which is turning into the hot industry of the moment in France.
There are dozens of service providers, with fees spreading wildly, from $35 to $100 a month, plus all sorts of additional hourly fees. There is no industry leader at this time, although rumor has it that a company named Infonie (+331 41.02.80.68), under the leadership of Christopher Watkins, will roll-out the French equivalent of America Online with full Internet access. Infonie's parent company, Infogrammes, published information on Minitel for ten years, and claims 50 content-providing partners. Because of Infonie's emphasis on French content and Net access, it is expected to pose a significant challenge to the less user-friendly Internet service providers.
Fanning the flames of Net madness in France are a set of new French magazines touting the joys of cyberspace. Planete Internet, Internet Reporter, and Interactif (firstname.lastname@example.org). All share similar reporting -- reviews of Web sites, discussion list, newsgroups; explanations of how the Net works (what is IRC?), and the occasional feature, some of which are quite good, such as an article in Planete Internet about the Net in China. Fueling this boom is an essential fact -- the number of personal computers in France stands at 11 million, more than the number of minitel terminals (7 million). The installed base is there for the creation of online services and Internet gateways. But undermining this boom is the French government.
Will American companies be permitted to bid on creating more advanced Minitel interfaces and back-end network connections? Who will get the contract to create Minitel compatible front-ends for PCs? The database behind Minitel is extremely valuable and robust, so transferring the system to a GUI, multimedia platform is essential, and a potentially lucrative contract. Will American online services, such as CompuServe and America Online be able to compete in France, or will the government create barriers to give French companies an advantage, such as forbidding American companies to offer access to the Minitel database? And, the ultimate question, will the French government deregulate their telephone industry, allowing local calls to fall to a level where staying online for hours no longer costs a small fortune?
Meanwhile, the French government decided to discretely open an Internet gateway to Minitel. It is worth the visit, and free for now. From your Web browser you can surf the shops of France, maybe even get a date. It's the next best thing to visiting. Vive la diferance!
Meme found a new home at St. John's University. This is the last issue you will get from me at email@example.com. Meme 1.06 will come from a listserver. This means I will have to spend less time keeping track of subscribers and you will get more reliable delivery. All current subscribers will simply have their addresses transferred to the listserv, so you should not notice much of change. A big thank you to St. John's and Dr. Zenhausern for making this possible.
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