I went back to Paris to accomplish the more serious business of eating and drinking until my plane left to take me back to the U.S. In August, Paris transforms itself. The French all leave on their annual four- to six-week holidays. The absence of Frenchmen contrasted sharply with the surge in the American presence.
It seemed like the entire population of New Jersey had come to see the Eiffel Tower. They had brought with them a large portion of Sony’s Camcorder output for the past few years. This called for guerrilla tourism on my part, avoiding the Champs Élysées and concentrating instead on seedy cafés on the Left Bank. Before leaving, however, there was one bit of business I wanted to accomplish.
On my last day in Paris, I called Gerard Poirot and arranged to visit his office, located in the shadows of what used to be the Bastille. Poirot is an evangelist for videotex. One of the original marketing managers for the French Minitel system, he is active in efforts to spread this underrated technology into the U.S.
When you get a telephone, France Telecom gives you the choice of a phonebook or a computer terminal. As a result, over 3 million people have, free of charge, one of the squat brown Minitel terminals in their home. Of these 3 million terminals, France Telecom estimates 80 percent are actually used. Even if the number is inflated, this was still, until very recently, the largest single network in the world.
The core of Minitel is directory assistance, however. Poirot had a formidable memory, rattling over a dozen phone numbers off the tip of his tongue. When his memory failed, however, he reached over to his Minitel terminal and tapped the two digits to connect him to directory assistance. He typed in the last name and the city, and the fax, voice, and audiotext numbers all appeared on the screen. (Audiotext is the French word for phone-based services like stock reports or voice mail.) Gerard picked the menu item for the voice line, and the number was automatically dialed for him.
Minitel is much more than just directory assistance. The usual bulletin board services—pornography, dating services, IQ tests, and sports results—were all present, but with a few additional surprises.
For example, Nynex had the New York Yellow Pages up on Minitel. Prohibited from offering electronic yellow pages services in the U.S. by Judge Greene’s restraining order, Nynex had no such restraint in France and was evidently testing their U.S. system for future deployment. Gerard and I looked up the names of all Bangladeshi cafes in Manhattan and jotted down their locations for reference on subsequent trips to the Big Apple.
Most access to Minitel was based on the French X.25 network, Transpac. With over 300 X.25 switches connected at speeds of up to 2.048 (E1), Transpac and Minitel have a symbiotic relationship. A service like Minitel does no good if there is no access path to it. Likewise, an X.25 network is a road to nowhere without useful services on it.
Minitel was a case study in providing useful information services. By the beginning of 1990, Minitel had over 12,000 service providers. Even intra-company transactions, including banking, insurance, and order processing, occurred on the network. The directory service alone received well over 10 million calls per day and train reservations received over 1.5 million calls per day.
Leaving Gerard Poirot, I went to catch my plane back to the U.S. Through some fast talking, I managed to get my no-refund, nochange, economy ticket upgraded to a first class seat. It’s amazing what you can get, if you just ask.
I sat munching my Beluga caviar and drinking my Dom Perignon champagne and decided that travel wasn’t so bad if you just get the right seat. By the time the single malt scotch, the vintage port, and the freshly-peeled kiwi fruits had come and gone, I even became optimistic about the weeks ahead converting ITU data. Drink can certainly cloud your judgment.