by Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
For Connexions: the Interoperability Report,
v. 8 n. 4, April, 1994, p. 2-11, available from the Connexions Archive in elegant .pdf at,
So the telecom giants are converging on the previously-tidy little world of inter-networking. So the Viacoms and QVCs and TCIs and Paramounts and Baby Bells -- with their Martin Davises, Sumner Redstones, Barry Dillers, and John Malones (Microsoft and Bill Gates will be in there somewhere) -- are descending: upon the careful, comfortable, rigorously-standardized "academic testbed" which until recently has brought us "BITNET" and "The Internet" and inter-networking generally. This is the old news, now.
But the new, breaking, news is the decision -- not yet made, quite -- of just what approach to telecommunications is going to be adopted by "the giants," or those which emerge victorious from the current telecom merger bloodbaths.
Will they simply plug into the Internet? That seems unlikely: there is much which they appear to want which the Internet does not yet offer, and much which the Internet offers which the mass marketers who run the telcos and cablecos do not much want. The marketers need multimedia and simplicity, for instance, neither of which the Internet does well yet; and they don't need the bland interfaces and arcane command and indexing structures, which so often succeed only in making the current Internet appear to be "information-overloaded."
But is there an alternative? Does the Internet have any competition? The easy marketing answer is: yes -- always -- there are competitors out there, and there will be more. Monopoly is the dream of every product developer, and it's always an illusion.
Minitel is one Internet competitor. You wouldn't know it, from conversation on "the net." "The net" appears to be synonymous with "The Internet" at least to the 2-PhDs-per-household, 6-figure-income world of current US networking.
But the new networking byword, even in the US now, is "general public": this is the market most interesting to the commercial giants which will run US networking in the next century. It is a world also interesting to certain foreign governments which are trying to leapfrog non-ASCII-American-English-speaking populations into the 21st. The Internet does not address this by-comparison-to-academia relatively-impoverished & uneducated & polyglot world of the "general public", yet.
The French Minitel, though, already is "general public". It has been, since its 1972 introduction. The marketing legend is that the government originally gave terminals away for free, loaded the telephone books online, and then stopped printing the books. No one admits this now, although they do say that the printed fone books were very hard to come by for awhile back then...
Today, 17,000 services are offered, from home shopping to reserving items at the Bibliotheque Nationale to the infamous "sex chat" of "Minitel Rose". All this arrives via 7 million terminals -- no longer free, but still cheap -- and many millions more free diskettes and commercial "V.23" terminal emulation programs for Macs and PCs.
The total number of Minitel users? That depends on assumptions about statistics which are as shaky in the French case as they are when applied to the Internet. Minitel knows that nearly 7 million terminals are "out there", with several million more potential terminals in place via Macs and PCs equipped with emulation programs.
Recent estimates of Internet usage rely on a factor of 10: from 2 million known current Internet "servers" they assume 10 human users per server to reach current figures of "20 million Internet users/' The same logic, applied to Minitel, might yield 100 million Minitel users! Specious, no doubt -- the assumptions cloak all sorts of statistical unknowns, such as the number of unused Internet accounts and Minitel terminals lying around in US academic computer centers and French homes, and the number of uses "typical" of US academic use versus French domestic use.
Still, there are a lot of Minitel users now. Comparing Internet/Minitel total user figures is networking overkill "bean-counting." The point is that both systems are quite comparably-huge and are growing rapidly. France Telecom claims that usage-time, a figure which they are able to tabulate accurately, now is approaching 10 million hours during some months.
The basic technology is simple, and perhaps even crude by current networking standards. The Minitel is videotex: cute little alpha-numeric graphics screens with rigid indexing and command structures, putting out text and images at intolerably low levels of resolution -- 25-line pages only 40 characters wide, like those little "information" stands which populated US airports for a while a decade ago -- and at insufferably slow rates of speed, 1200bps.
Minitel's current low transmission speed is a major problem. Minitel New York's able Philippe Belvin explains the problem faced in France itself. There, France Telecom and Alcatel populated the countryside, a decade ago, with smart PADs -- Packet Assembler Dis-assemblers, known in French as Points d'Acces Videotex / PAVs. These were based on the now-outmoded "V.23" norm, which provides for 1200bps maximum input and only 75bps output from a user's modem.
The idea at the time, Belvin explains, was to provide for normal typing speeds for output: terminal users typing at more than 9 words per second were not foreseen, but neither was uploading of large datafiles from emulation-package-equipped Macs and PCs.
For the latter application -- and for fast typists -- "V.22bis", 2400 / 2400bps, and "V.27ter", 4800 / 4800bps, norms now are being used in the US and elsewhere, and 9600 and 14400 are under development. But at home in France there still is the problem of replacing all those very slow old 1200bps PAVs. They say this will be done by end-1994; but we'll see, and it will be interesting to see who wins in the current raging debate over exactly what to replace the old standard with.
Transmission speed, though, is a universal problem. There is high-speed work under way in France. France Telecom presented -- at INTEROP Europe 93 in Paris last fall -- T3 applications (actually E3, 34Mbps rather than the US T3's 45Mbps, but same idea and problem) including entertainment and news video, a LAN interconnection service for "bandwidth-on-demand", and ATM networks.
France has super-computing, and one would expect their active participation -- as a leading participant, second only to the US -- in whatever develops from the current US gigabit testbed developments, now at 1.2Gbps and soon to move to 2.4Gbps.
But French networking practicality -- this seems a contradiction in terms, to those who can remember the sad state of French telephony in the 1960s -- is more remarkable than their equally-astonishing presence in the forefront of networking research. Imaging applications, including extensive video-conferencing, are being channeled to their already in-place national fiber optics and ISDN infrastructure:
Any French office or home now can have ISDN -- two 64Kbps channels plus one 16Kbps "signaling" channel -- for US$60 per month. This may retard the development of higher bandwidth applications temporarily -- times are hard financially in France as they are in California -- but at least they have the applications off the drawing board and under way. Both the "Numeris" domestic ISDN infrastructure and the Minitel are demonstrations of the French commitment to this networking practicality. They may be the "low end," but they also are the "mass market," and "mass market" is the key word for networking development for the mid-'90s.
Minitel has solved, in addition, a number of basic problems which still confront the Internet:
As one accomplished interface designer has observed to this writer, what Internet interface-development needs is a "Waldo" factor: that innocuous little cartoon-character whom US children will search happily for, for hours, in drawings and cartoons and puzzles filled with similar images -- a "fun" factor, something which will make the user want to use the graphics. Minitel already has this: all its services are designed to be colorful and graphically appealing.
Minitel has been customer-driven from its inception, by contrast, and has benefited from a decade of customer complaints and suggestions. The services which it now offers have been user-tested -- by real, general public, users, and not just test-developers -- over many years. This accumulated customer experience is a priceless marketing investment, which the Internet has yet to acquire.
Minitel, by comparison, is simple and easy to learn, with nearly rigid standardization at most levels, and simple hierarchical structures easy to grasp for users for whom "Boolean" and "hypertext" searching would be merely nightmares: simplistic, by contrast, but Minitel works for the "general public". Minitel even tries to be multilingual -- there are multilingual indexes and support services and efforts to accommodate English and other languages online -- which puts it well in advance of the network nationalism of the ASCII-only-speaking Internet.
This first-to-market advantage has been exploited heavily by computer hardware and software firms, as it has been in other industries. The strategy is to flood the new market with your product, whether the product is "really ready" for the market or not, and then to fine-tune things later: large offices are very reluctant to shift to a "better" spreadsheet program, once they have invested the time and money necessary to train staff on an already-acquired one, almost no matter what improvements have been added to the newer program to make it "better."
The Internet's approach has not been marketing-driven, much less concerned with being "first-to-market," and it still isn't. It always has been hard to get Internet accounts, and then it has been hard to get help in using them. The Internet -- despite its millions of "users" -- still isn't in the American office or home, where the marketers dearly would like to see it.
Minitel, on the other hand, already is everywhere, and it particularly is in the French office and home, reaching the French consumer. This was its design from its inception: France Telecom identified its "market" and proceeded to flood that market with its "product," no matter how imperfectly developed Minitel was at the time. Now that Minitel is "there," in France, it is much easier to "improve" it than it is to get over that initial threshold of introducing the Internet, for the first time, to the networking-shy American consumer.
Minitel users complain about Minitel prices. But there never has been a consumer who accepted pricing entirely happily: unless it was because the price was comparatively cheaper than some other -- and such comparisons will have to wait until the development of network use pricing on the Internet and other Minitel competitors. Price-comparing among similar Minitel services already is an active factor in Minitel use.
The most interesting aspect of Minitel pricing, however, is that it dramatically demonstrates how hollow are some of the worst fears of the opponents of network commercialization. Minitel's pricing is not like the exorbitant charges of commercial online database vendors -- $200-300 per hour, thousands of dollars per month -- but more like the charges of telephone companies, pennies and sometimes a few dollars per minute: normal general public French users pay $.07 per minute for many basic services, and between $.17 and $.38 per minute for a vast array of regular commercial offerings.
These are telephone-call-level charges, as they should be, and are as acceptable to consumers as are telephone rates (after all some people still feel that telephones should be free, too!): they are not the stratospheric commercial database rates which people worried about Internet commercialization usually are thinking of. So Minitel is 1) fun, 2) useful, 3) easy, 4) everywhere, and 5) cheap, all in stark contrast to at least current perceptions if not realities of the Internet: food for thought for anyone interested in the Internet's growth or marketing, and who doesn't want to hide her head in the sand about the Internet's competition.
Minitel is not taken quite seriously by its French users, and is not taken seriously at all by its non-French observers, as a real contender for the Internet's global market. But it has been improving and growing, steadily and now rapidly and aggressively. It's a mistake in marketing to ignore the competition, and simple arrogance to pretend that there is no competition.
Consider, then, Minitel, which is a large and potent and rapidly growing internetworking force, at least overseas and perhaps -- courtesy of the Baby Bells and cablecos -- in the US in some form one day as well. Consider at least what the Internet might learn from the Minitel, and what the Minitel may rapidly be learning by studying the Internet.
The industry which will develop telecommunications in the rest of the decade has gone through some major shifts in emphasis in the recent past, shifts which clearly reflect some of these Internet-Minitel differences.
"... the stories, movies and programs that people want to watch... Without the entertainment and information
offerings, all the flashy technology that experts say will soon be heading into homes -- from interactive television to
the information highway -- amounts to little more than hi-tech plumbing."
(Steve Lohr, New York Times, national edition, December 23, 1993, p.C4).
"Little more than hi-tech plumbing"?: the latest interactive television tools and the glorious new information highway!? Well, yes, there was a time when networking hardware, software and systems were central to everyone's thinking. Then there came a time when "applications" became important, hardware, software and systems having receded: having become easy enough, and inexpensive enough, for users and strategists concerned with users to go on to other things.
Both these times now are past: ask any firm which got stuck selling just mainframes or even PCs, or programming and custom software. Now it's neither the infrastructure nor the applications: both are firmly established, in industries dominated by cutthroat behemoths and foreign competition.no place any longer for under-funded start-ups.
Now it's the users: the clients, the voters, the customers. Who will they be? What will they want? What will/should the systems be designed to give them? Firms which have the answers to these questions can stake claims in the latest networked information market niche to fall open to new entries.
Firms which develop expertise in marketing.in anticipating and answering user demands and needs. will dominate this niche, in this phase in which the general public, at last, is to get access to this technology. The point is that the industry will stay on the point, and that firms which get distracted by other, older, less-central concerns -- like hardware and software and even networks -- will miss their market.
The concept! So, at last, the customer is king, in this new phase of information networking development. The demands of hardware and software -- of the technology -- no longer dictate, the way they used to. This is the long-awaited dream of several of the industry's leading apostles, who have longed for the day when the technology would become "invisible". Things are getting so easy and omnipresent as to be taken for granted by the users, like the telephone or any other now-common tool. We're nearly there, although not everyone in the industry wants to admit it. The question now becomes, "What will the customer want?"
A 1970's expression, coined during a more free-wheeling and acquisitive time than these belt-tightening and penny-pinching 1990s, was, "unclear on the concept". This was said, back then, of those who didn't properly appreciate the true meaning of the latest giant corporate merger and/or acquisition.
Today it might be said of those who still think that the telecom giants -- Baby Bells, cable companies, or whomever -- who are crashing-in & cashing-in quickly on the information networking party, are going to be interested in purveying the refined and high-principled academic content currently carried on the Internet. Of course there are lapses, even on the Internet: USENET is rowdy, and heaven -- or someone -- only knows what goes on in personal e-mail, and some Internet service providers, and certain foreign governments, would like very much to find out... But generally the Internet's traffic content is pretty sedate, so far...
Sedate, that is, by comparison to what any reasonable forecast of the intentions of the cable companies, and the global entertainment industry which is behind them, might predict. "Entertainment" is a polite word for what the opening of networking to the general public undoubtedly will involve. An even earlier generation -- the 1960s, this time -- would have called it, "sex 'n drugs 'n rock 'n roll". There's much reason to fear it, it's nearly impossible to control it, and it's foolish to deny its existence.
And if the majority wants it, the majority probably will get it. There are in addition, though, brave attempts being made to carve out a reserve for minority concerns and interests on the new "nets". Uses like community information networks, educational applications, and libraries, have their advocates.
Vice President Gore and Representative Markey -- among others in government prodded along relentlessly and effectively by Mitchell Kapor and the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- are leading the rising movement to carve a "National Public Network" out of the Information Superhighway's high-speed traffic jams. There will be, in other words, "sex 'n drugs 'n rock 'n roll"; but there also will be community bulletin boards, distance education, online libraries -- these latter services perhaps traded for the right to purvey the former, along the lines traditional to the FCC and government regulation generally -- whatever the customer wants, then, and then some.
The emphasis, though, clearly has shifted at last to the networking customer. The purpose now, finally, is to please that customer, and no longer to conform to the restrictions of the technology. Approaches and firms which realize this will win: those which do not will lose. Dave Barry digs at this in Newsweek magazine (January 3, 1994), where he "looks back on the 90s" from a vantage point located somewhere in the 21st century, and discovers what the networking customer really wanted all along:
"This is not to say that technology was an unadulterated plus in the '90s, The Information Superhighway was pretty much of a dud. Remember that? By the mid-'90s, just about everybody was hooked up to the vast international computer network, exchanging vast quantities of information at high speeds via modems and fiber-optic cable with everybody else. The problem, of course, was that even though the information was coming a lot faster, the vast majority of it, having originated with human beings, was still wrong. Eventually people realized that the Information Superhighway was essentially CB radio, but with more typing. By late in the decade millions of Americans had abandoned their computers and turned to the immensely popular new VirtuLib 2000, a $14,000 device that enables the user to experience, with uncanny realism, the sensation of reading a book."
Who will win?: never a nice question, in a competitive situation... Better to ask some functional questions, such as, "Who satisfies the customers better?" One recent appraisal of the Internet's user-friendliness -- by Peter Lewis in the New York Times, Sunday edition, December 12, 1993 -- paints a bleak picture of that player's prospects:
"... woe to the individual executive or computer novice who wants to tap directly into the rich depths of the Internet. Despite all the recent hyperbole praising the Internet as the precursor to the national data highway, establishing a direct connection to the Internet is about as easy for a novice as traveling a muddy road on a pogo stick, with traffic signs written in UNIX ... a company might want the text of the recent North American Free Trade Agreement and an analysis of its impact on, say, the automobile industry. Such information exists on the Internet, but one is likely to hear a giant sucking sound as the Internet user is drawn ever deeper into the network in search of it."
But all is not lost. Lewis' disenchantment may apply to networking generally -- to Minitel and others as well as to the Internet -- and may have more to do with Lewis himself than it does with networking. His children may feel more comfortable with it already than he ever will.
But he's correct for now: no networking approach which follows Henry Ford's famous marketing dictum -- "The customer can have any color he wants so long as it's black" -- will succeed when the other competitors are offering bright colors, options, and other varieties and choices.
How good -- or at least how flexible -- is the competition now? Some generalities about Minitel's current advantages to the user already have been suggested: that it is, 1) fun, 2) useful, 3) easy, 4) everywhere, and 5) cheap. It has developed still other tricks, these aimed at easing use by the service provider:
There are many other angles -- government policies, business ideas, approaches, tricks -- which can be brought to bear on any serious effort to "satisfy the customer" in information networking. The point is that an approach "clear on the concept" -- one which realizes that customer-satisfaction has taken priority now in networking, and that the customer increasingly will be a member of the "general public" and not some wealthy, highly-educated, or otherwise-special elite -- will succeed, where other approaches will fail.
There are plenty of crazy predictions for the future of internet-working, floating around on the nets. Some cloak themselves with an aura of numerical respectability: one extrapolates current trends and finds there will be more e-mail addresses on the planet than there are people, by some fast-approaching date...
My own favorite futurist story is that of the 1875 prognosticator who predicted that at then-"current rates of production" the city of London would be fifteen feet deep in horse manure by the year 1950... I think of his prediction every time I read the latest networking superlatives.
It is interesting, though, to see what Minitel has "just waiting 'round the bend". These are ideas currently in development: pipe-dreams, perhaps, but pipe-dreams which have some hope of being with us within a year, unlike predictions of "paperless libraries" and "fully-informatised societies" which may take longer to accomplish:
Minitel has made a good start on international connectivity. Easy connections are available from Minitel in France to similar "videotex" services or to distributors in many countries:
Germany, Spain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, the US, Portugal, Gabon, Italy, Madagascar, Korea, Japan, Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Chad, Chile, Djibouti, Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Niger, Senegal, and Togo. Local Minitel dialup numbers are available all over the US and Europe, and in Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, South Africa, and Singapore.
Lest anyone think the expansion trend has slowed, respectable rumors appeared in December that Minitel might purchase the British videotex service, Prestel: a "pig in a poke," perhaps, as Prestel has been doing poorly, but competitors might watch now to see what is done with Prestel, as an indication of Minitel's aggressiveness -- and likely failure or success -- in other foreign markets.
Minitel even can reach the Internet, although the Internet can't reach Minitel: some Minitel services now offer Internet e-mail, and some French Internet nodes have added Minitel "kiosk" access.
I won't take sides myself. I am an admirer of what both systems have achieved, and I am an overly-enthusiastic user of both. I personally do not believe the telecommunications model for the next century has been developed yet, anyway. The Internet and Minitel both are working on it, certainly, but neither yet is there: the new synthesis will use the best aspects of both -- or perhaps the worst, but at least a bit of both.
The least each can do at this point, then, is to take a good firm look at the other: beginning with an admission that the other exists, which is perhaps the hard task in both cases. General public networking via the Internet may be more efficient. The same via Minitel might be more fun. The next century might thank us if we give them something in networking which offers a bit of both.
Free PC/Mac telecom Minitel diskettes are available in North America from (voice) 212-399-0080. Try it and see, enjoy and/or shudder, back to the future!
There are a few other good books and periodicals out now, in English and other languages as well as in French, on Minitel and on the development of global Videotex generally: many are referred to in the above magazines.
JACK KESSLER has academic degrees in philosophy, law, and library and information studies, and has pursued these and
other subjects at Yale, Oxford, and the University of California. He spent fifteen years in the handicraft importing
business, until he found the glamor of international travel to be at odds with the joys of married life and of the
raising of two small boys. His love affair with books and love/hate relationship with the computer are long-standing.
While an importer he fought the automation battles of the 70s and 80s, most often siding with the Luddites against the
machines but then reluctantly giving in. He's still suspicious. Currently he works as a networked information
consultant, and just has concluded a one-year study in France of the French Minitel and of foreign library applications
of the US Internet. He is a member of the American Society for Information Science, the American Library Association,
and the California Library Association. His ambition in life still is never to take another airplane trip. His Internet
email address is: email@example.com -- also reachable from Internet nodes
JACK KESSLER has academic degrees in philosophy, law, and library and information studies, and has pursued these and other subjects at Yale, Oxford, and the University of California. He spent fifteen years in the handicraft importing business, until he found the glamor of international travel to be at odds with the joys of married life and of the raising of two small boys. His love affair with books and love/hate relationship with the computer are long-standing. While an importer he fought the automation battles of the 70s and 80s, most often siding with the Luddites against the machines but then reluctantly giving in. He's still suspicious. Currently he works as a networked information consultant, and just has concluded a one-year study in France of the French Minitel and of foreign library applications of the US Internet. He is a member of the American Society for Information Science, the American Library Association, and the California Library Association. His ambition in life still is never to take another airplane trip. His Internet email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org -- also reachable from Internet nodes on Minitel.
FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal ISSN 1071-5916 * | FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic | journal published since 1992 as a small-scale, | personal experiment, in the creation of large- | scale "information overload", by Jack Kessler. / \ Any material written by me which appears in ----- FYI France may be copied and used by anyone for // \\ any good purpose, so long as, a) they give me --------- credit and show my email address, and, b) it // \\ isn't going to make them money: if it is going to make them money, they must get my permission in advance, and share some of the money which they get with me. Use of material written by others requires their permission. FYI France archives may be found at http://email@example.com/ (BIBLIO-FR archive), or http://listserv.uh.edu/archives/pacs-l.html (PACS-L archive), or http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/Collections/FYIFrance/ or http://www.fyifrance.com . Suggestions, reactions, criticisms, praise, and poison-pen letters all gratefully received at firstname.lastname@example.org . Copyright 1992- , by Jack Kessler, all rights reserved except as indicated above.
The FYI France Home Page ,
or you can link / jump over to: