Shopping and banking on a computer network in the 1980s (Minitel)

Minitel: Welcome to the Internet (Mailland and Driscoll; MIT Press) says that the French were banking online starting in late 1983:

The first service, Vidéocompte (video account), was launched on December 20, 1983, by CCF Bank (now part of HSBC). But far from being what the Financial Times called an “electronic gadget,” within a year the service attracted 65 percent of CCF clients who owned a Minitel. Other banks were a bit less successful, for unlike the CCF, they actually charged a monthly fee for the service. A 1991 France Telecom survey estimated that “the penetration ratio (total subscribers/total bank customers) average[d] 8% for nationwide banks and 19% for local banks.” Nonetheless, that was enough for banking services to repeatedly be ranked in the top of all services by France Telecom. Services ranged from checking balances and making appointments with bank personnel, to ordering checkbooks and transferring money. Using Minitel as a modem, the home or office accountant could download banking data to further manipulate it using a personal computer. The contrast between the successful Minitel model for online banking and US videotex failures in this realm highlight the power of Minitel as a neutral, open platform on which private actors could layer their services. In contrast, the fragmentation of US systems made it impossible for banking services to succeed. Different banking applications required separate subscriptions to distinct gated communities and sometimes dedicated hardware.  The United States would have to wait for the privatization of the open Internet as a neutral, open platform to see the successful emergence of online banking in the retail sector.

They had Amazon Fresh:

Tele-Market promised to deliver food to the Paris area and offered same-day delivery. It competed with several other companies; a 1987 guide lists four different services focused on delivering to the Paris area, and twenty-three total in France, enabling one to order from large stores, specialized wine retailers, or straight from local farms.

[under a 1985 photo of a Tele-Market van]

They had Google:

The France Telecom telephone directory, known as Le 11, featured a natural language interface. Name searches could be successfully completed even when the name or address was spelled wrong, and the yellow pages sections of the State-run directory as well as the Minitel online directory MGS offered powerful natural-language search capabilities. For example, one could search for “reservation of theater tickets in Paris” or “residential real estate rentals in Lyon.” By May 1991, France Telecom would boast a 98 percent rate of accuracy in the search results.

They had Siri:

In addition to natural-language interfaces, the private sector also experimented with on-demand personal assistants and semantic search. Before Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, Minitel users could chat with Claire or Sophie. Claire provided administrative information, while Sophie answered questions on Parisian cultural activities. But Claire and Sophie were not powered by artificial intelligence software; there were real, live people on the other end of the connection, referred to as “Minitel girls.” That was 1984. Truly automated personal assistant services with natural-language interfaces began to appear around 1987, such as 3615 AK, a public-facing database of health information similar to WebMD.

The Minitel nerds also envisioned (and built) the Internet of Things (IoT), but without TCP/IP or the Silicon Valley Insufferables:

The Minitel terminal—and specifically, its serial port—played a central role in coordinating the domotique network. First, it provided communication to and from the outside world by supplying an interface between the various “smart” devices in the home to the telephone system. This enabled cybernetic devices to communicate with the outside world. For example, a domotique fire alarm could ring the firehouse. Similarly, the Minitel could receive orders sent remotely and communicate them to the control unit.

Domotique devices from the 1980s included thermostats, VCRs, security systems, lights, yard irrigation, and even kitchen appliances—although it remains unclear why anyone would want to remotely control a stove, fridge, or supply of laundry detergent or trash bags.

[Sadly these folks couldn’t get $3 billion after doing a little 8051 coding.]

More: read Minitel: Welcome to the Internet

One thought on “Shopping and banking on a computer network in the 1980s (Minitel)

  1. I lived in Paris 91-94 and used Minitel. Yeah it was useful for a few things like simple online banking and buying a train ticket. No one I know used it for grocery delivery. I can’t remember the search or natural language interface being particularly useful. At peak, I probably used Minitel an hour a week. On average, I probably used it 10 min / week.

    Long before living in France, I was already an experienced user of BBS’s, CompuServe, the Source, Delphi and even wrote a chat software for a Delphi competitor. I used all of these other services far more than I ever used Minitel.

    So Minitel never had the utility of the predated online services, nor anywhere to the value I get out of the web and Google today. The whole comparison is somewhat silly.

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