Thursday, February 02, 2006

Interactivity a la Francais

France Minitel: Vive la difference?

by Carla Diana

PARIS/NEW YORK, July 9, 1997 -- Those French, [Image]
they always think they've got a better way of
doing things. They eat snails, sunbathe topless [you're
saying this is bad? -- Ed.], set up crepe stands instead
of hot dog carts, and think their wine is better than the
Italian variety (harrumph!). While they stand apart from
others, their snootiness doesn't make them provincial or
backward. Au contraire! They still get things done, and
sometimes better than anyone else.

My week in Paris -- after my long sojourn in Rome, a
beautiful but chaotic city -- made the French efficiency
seem even more clear. The beautifully cross-referenced
"Plan de Paris" is one of the best maps of any city that
I've ever seen; the extensive subway system is fast and
clean; and my credit cards were finally worth something.
Perhaps even more impressive than the wine service at
McDonald's was the Minitel, the small computer-like
device with a screen and a keyboard that has become a
permanent fixture in the homes of my French friends.

Minitel began 10 years ago as an electronic white and
yellow page listing, created and maintained by the phone
company, France Telecom. This service continues to be its
core no-fee service and contains all residential and
business listings throughout France. Users don't have to
specify a location, and searches can be done by typing in
only partial information, such as the first few letters
of a last name, or a first name and a city. The hardware
is provided free to any private telephone customer in
France, and a majority of the telephone-using population
is now Minitel-equipped.

Much more than a glorified electronic phone book, Minitel
functions as a limited, miniature, France-only Internet
system, with many networked services including banking,
plane, train and hotel reservations, stock market quotes,
movie listings, classifieds, user forums and Internet
e-mail. Each of these is accessed by dialing a four-digit
code, and a small fee, anywhere from ten cents to a
dollar a minute, is added to the subscriber's phone bill.
Minitel services can be located either by using the
on-screen search menu or the printed Minitel listing. The
system accesses information both for private and business
use, and some businesses, such as automotive repair
stations, have access to information that is available
exclusively on Minitel, like part numbers and inventory
status.

The Minitel service is no substitute for the Internet: It
won't allow for in-depth research of a particular
subject; it won't provide information outside France
(except through e-mail); it doesn't have the
sophisticated graphics or beefed-up content of the World
Wide Web. On the other hand, it is a brilliant interim
device that has succeeded in becoming mainstream in a way
that the Internet has not. It's much more affordable than
any hardware and Internet hook-up combination and it
offers user-friendly access to practical information and
services.

The Internet may have more to offer (just think, Minitel
users have no access to etown.com!), but searches for
exactly the right website can send frustrated users
running away from the mouse. With the continuing growth
of the Internet, it is going to become increasingly
important for software and search engines to help users
to quickly and easily obtain the kind of practical
information that a system like Minitel has to offer. A
Minitel search for "babysitter," for example (pronounced
"beh BEE seet hair," of course), will immediately yield
information about how to reach individuals and agencies
in the country who will care for a child while his
parents are away; it can then be narrowed down to one
particular town. An Internet search for the same thing
using a popular search engine, Lycos, results in more
than 2000 global listings, including information about
baby products unrelated to babysitting, background
information about the film "The Babysitter's Club,"
something called "Babysittervermittlung," and a link to
"Amanda & Malories Home Page," whatever that is. The user
well-versed in the logic of search strings might be able
to use the Internet to obtain the kind of narrow results
that Minitel provides, but in many cases the exhaustive
results of a straight search ends in user frustration,
not to mention a huge waste of time.

To Internet users, it may seem silly and downright
elitist for the France Telecom to have created its own
nationally contained pseudo-Internet system. Doesn't this
mean that the French turned their backs on the global
sandcastle construction of the real Internet? While
Minitel may cause some to lose interest in the Internet,
ultimately it could act as a gentle way of introducing
the general population to the concept of interactivity.
In the U.S., the Internet was presented as a sink-or-swim
proposition, with the technologically literate enjoying
greater buoyancy that the rest. More affordable,
user-friendly devices like Web-TV have helped bridge the
gap, but they were created only after the initial
stumbling. Minitel has gotten people accustomed to using
a keyboard and screen to request information, holding
their hands through the processes of searching and
navigating around a screen full of text. Now it's up to
France Telecom to go the distance and offer Minitel users
greater access to the Internet through more extensive
hardware and services.

Sounds like a good excuse for me to start planning
another vacation in Paris. If I had a Minitel system, I'd
book my flight online.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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