Fifteen years ago in France, you could find a strange little box in millions of homes. From that box you could access the Yellow Pages, buy railway and plane tickets, play games, and even chat with very nice ladies. That little box was a passive, (almost) text-only terminal equipped with a keyboard and connected to the phone line. Its name was Minitel. It was invented in 1982, and provided thousands of online services ten years before the World Wide Web became famous.

The story of Minitel is exquisitely French. In France, most success stories involve good technology and large financial and political support from the government. It is not a matter of corporate initiative and smart marketing (see Microsoft). It may shock people who live in corporate-oriented economies, but that's the way it works in this country. And it usually works fine (see TGV, Airbus, Ariane...).

Therefore Minitel was created by the state-owned, monopolistic mail and telephone company. External companies were allowed to create their own Minitel sites, which were referred to by a kind of URL which indicated the communication cost and the company name: for example '36-15 SNCF' for the railway company, '36-15 Renault' for the car company.

Because the terminal was free, it pervaded French homes within a few years. However, the communications were very expensive (typically 1 franc or 15 US cents per minute), because the fees were partly distributed to the external company that owned the Minitel site. These companies made a lot of money, but the customers did not complain since there was nothing else to compare with. Also, the network was completely proprietary and closed, but again, how could anybody imagine a free and open worldwide network then?

On of the main advantages of Minitel was its extreme simplicity: you could go to your post office, take one of these boxes, come back home and plug it: it worked at once. To use it, you only had to press a button and type the site name. The thing was reliable because it had no disk, no memory, no blue screen of death.

So Minitel was great, and nothing in the world could be compared to it then. But the same reasons that produced the success were responsible for France being late when the Internet came out of the research labs in the 90s. French companies, which could earn so much easy money with Minitel fees, were reluctant to build high-cost Web sites with no immediate benefit. In the same way, France Télécom, the telephone company that manages the Minitel network now, hesitated a lot before turning to the Internet.

Because France Télécom and the French government failed to enhance it, open it, modify its pricing and promote it, it remained a 100% French technology. Nowadays it's slow, ugly and expensive, although millions of people are still using it. It was one the most important lost opportunity of the century for the French economy. Had it been invented by some US company, probably the Web would be called Minitel today. As I said before, that's the way it works in this country.