Oral History of Georges Nahon
Interviewed by Julien Mailland and Marc Weber, on 2015-05-04 in Mountain View, California
In 1983, the French Post Telegraph & Telephone Ministry launched Minitel, a videotex system that quickly became the world’s first successful mass-market retail online ecosystem. With Minitel, France became the world’s most connected country and remained so until the rise of the Web over a decade later. Minitel provided France with a platform that enabled a world of digital experimentation at a time when online business and social life were uncharted territories, and French entrepreneurs took ample advantage of it. Before there were dot.coms there was Minitel Rose, the “Pink Minitel,” a world of sexy, edgy, completely anonymous, liberated chat over the messageries (chat rooms). There was e-government, e-commerce, e-entertainment, e-services, and even a Minitel-connected smart-house.
Minitel was a great success domestically, with virtually all French people having online access by the late eighties. But while worldwide export of the system also had been an explicit goal of the French state when it kicked off the project in 1978, Minitel simply did not sell abroad, despite intense efforts by Intelmatique, the export arm of the French Post Telegraph & Telephone Ministry (subsequently France Telecom). Minitel also remained the only success within the larger Videotex standard, which had been conceived in the UK in the 1970s with goals as ambitious, and global, as the later Web. Why did Minitel, and videotex as a whole, fail beyond France?
We sat down with Georges Nahon, former CEO of Intelmatique, to recall his years as the Chief Minitel Exporter. Nahon’s story takes us to the middle of standardization battles at the ITU and other inter-governmental venues, and through various tales of international rivalries. Focusing on Intelmatique’s efforts to promote Minitel in the U.S., we learn much about the American videotex market and why it failed in general. Nahon’s story takes us through the excitement of the times, the vicissitudes of entrepreneurship, the successes and failures of experimentation, and the philosophy behind – and rewards of – helping human beings connect and communicate. Differences between, and relative advantages and inconveniences of X.25 and IP are also discussed in ways that help us grasp the history, and perhaps the future, of online ecosystems.
By: Computer History.