Long before there was the iPhone, users in France had another connected device with which they could do everything from check movie listings or the weather to chatting with other users or booking vacations: The Minitel.
Pre-dating the World Wide Web by several years, the Minitel was a French videotex online service that could be accessed through the phone line. It was used by tens of millions of people in France. Among those who gave it a go? None other than Apple co-founder Steve Jobs — who once got a unit sent to the U.S. so he could put it through its paces.
This month, the inventor of the Minitel, telecoms engineer Gerard Thery, passed away at the age of 88. His most famous invention made its debut in 1982, and was only ultimately discontinued in June 2012.
Steve Jobs got his hands on a unit
According to a Reuters article from 2012, “[Steve] Jobs bought one and took it to bits to see how it worked,” Gerard Thery said.
The prototypical internet device never caught on overseas. However, it was a cultural phenomenon in France — and, with its cute, boxy design, is a piece of immediately recognizable tech iconography on a par with a famous computer like the Macintosh 128K.
Unfortunately, I could dig up very little else on Jobs’ experience with the Minitel. According to the book Understanding Business Ecosystems, Jobs had it shipped over to him at Apple by Jean-Louis Gassée, then the Director of European Operations at Apple Computer. This would have been around the time that Jobs took over the Macintosh project. Cult of Mac sent a message to Jean-Louis Gassée, and will update this article if he provides any additional context.
The power of networking
It’s not difficult to believe that Jobs would have found the Minitel fascinating. He was talking about the societal effects of networked computers back in the early 1990s and before. The idea of a groundbreaking — and hugely popular — piece of technology that connected everyone would have intrigued him. The all-in-one boxy design is also highly reminiscent of some of the computers Apple was putting out at the time.
Minitel pioneer Gerard Thery died on July 18 in Paris.
Did you ever use a Minitel? What are your memories of it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.