Frenchman behind Minitel – the online system that preceded the internet – dies aged 88

Gerard Thery, the telecoms engineer whose Minitel project brought internet-style communications to France long before other industrialised countries, has died aged 88, officials said on Monday.

Frenchman behind Minitel - the online system that preceded the internet - dies aged 88
Minitel boxes were distributed free to homes in France. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP

Thery, who oversaw the development of the Minitel ahead of its commercial launch in 1982, died in Paris on July 18th, the civil registry confirmed.

Developed by France Telecom and freely distributed to households, the Minitel allowed users to check the news, search phone directories, buy train and plane tickets, make restaurant reservations and even engage in online sex chats.

With its simple interface and easy-to-use payments system, the boxy device is thought to have been an early source of inspiration to Apple founder Steve Jobs.

At its height in the early 1990s the Minitel was installed in nine million French homes, with 26,000 services available and annual revenues of about a billion euros.

But the advent of the internet made its dial-up connection and black-and-white screen obsolete.

Despite the protests of some fierce hold-outs, operator France Telecom-Orange decided to pull the plug in 2012.

French farmers were among those who mourned it the most, as it was still widely used at the time in remote areas without access to high-speed internet.

While the Minitel was a major success at home and a source of national pride, France never succeeded in exporting the technology.

Some critics blamed widespread use of the Minitel for France lagging behind other wealthy countries in adopting internet use.

But others argued that the Minitel gave France early expertise in e-commerce, pointing to successful entrepreneurs such as Xavier Niel of French telecoms network Free, who got their start as service providers on the system.

“I consider it to have been something great, even if it ended at an impasse,” Thery said at an event organised by France’s Association for ICT History in 2019.

Thery was born in the small town of Sallaumines in France’s northern Pas-de-Calais region in 1933 and spent his entire career in telecoms, serving as national telecommunications chief from 1974 until 1981.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


France to roll out ID cards app

Technology is being rolled out to allow people to carry their French ID cards in an app form - and could be rolled out to other cards, including driving licences and cartes de séjour residency cards.

France to roll out ID cards app

Holders of French carte d’identité (ID cards) will soon be able to carry certified digital versions of them on their smartphone or other electronic devices, a decree published in the Journal Officiel has confirmed.

An official app is being developed for holders of the newer credit card-format ID cards that have information stored on a chip. A provisional test version of the app is expected at the end of May.

Users will be able to use the ID card app, when it becomes available, for a range of services “from checking in at the airport to renting a car”, according to Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market.

All French citizens have an ID card, which can be used for proving identity in a range of circumstances and for travel within the EU and Schengen zone – the new app will be in addition to the plastic card that holders already have.

Under the plans, after downloading the app, card holders will need merely to hold the card close to their phone to transfer the required information. According to officials, the holder then can decide what information is passed on – such as proof of age, or home address – according to the situation.

The government has not given any examples of situations in which the app would need to be used, but has set out the main principles and the ambition of the plan: to allow everyone to identify themselves and connect to certain public and private organisations, in particular those linked to the France Connect portal.

READ ALSO What is France Connect and how could it make your life simpler?

Cards will continue to be issued for the foreseeable future – this is merely an extension of the existing system.

Only French citizens have ID cards, but if successful the app is expected to be rolled out to include other cards, such as driving licences, cartes de séjour residency cards or even visas. A digital wallet is being developed at the European level – Member States have until September to agree what it could contain.

READ ALSO Eight smartphone apps that make life in France a bit easier