When I think of the French, I think of delicious sauces and gravies, fine wine, the Eiffel Tower, and the French Underground. I do not think of them as the inventor of the App Store.
History of The Minitel
In 1980, the French government gave its country’s tech industry a decade head start ahead of the rest of the world when it introduced a computer terminal called the Minitel. The device went into beta in 1980, (some sources cite the late seventies as the start of experimental rollout), and was introduced to the French populace in 1983. Every household that had a phone line was eligible for a free Minitel.
The Minitel had one killer app at the time, a digital version of the “Yellow Pages” phone book. In order to encourage adoption of the Minitel, the government simply cancelled the publication of the tree-sourced Yellow Pages, informing the populace that if they wanted to look up a phone number, then it would be via a Minitel.
By the end of the eighties, 6.5 million French households had a Minitel under their roof. By the year 2000, 25 million out of a total population of 55 million were still using a Minitel!
The Minitel network was taken down in June 2012. At that time, there were still a couple of million people using the network. While we Americans are still struggling to teach Grandma and Grandpa how to send a photo via email, the French spent the last few years weaning theirs off of the Minitel devices.
The Minitel “App Store”
In 1984, the government began allowing developers to create services for the Minitel. The plan the government used for this program may sound vaguely familiar to some of you. When users would buy services (apps), the government would take a 30% cut of the proceeds, and then pass the rest on to the developers. (Ringing a bell yet?) The users then paid for the services at the end of the month as part of their phone bill.
As you might expect, developers were immediately drawn by this opportunity. By the early nineties there were tens of thousands of Minitel applications that would allow you to bet on the horses, check the weather, view your horoscope, and of course – Hook up with the opposite sex!
The most popular services on Minitel were the Minitel Rose services. These services were of the type that millions of Americans use today via the Internet. These were the forerunners to today’s Match.com, OKCupid, and yes, Ashley Madison. This means the French, with their apparently well-deserved reputation as hopeless romantics, were hooking up online decades before the rest of the world!
As you might expect, the app developers did quite well with the Minitel cash machine. By the nineties, the “app Store” was pulling in over a billion USD a year! Quite a sum back then. Quite a sum now.
So, the next time you buy an app from the Mac or iOS App Store, be sure to give a quick nod to the French, fathers of the original App Store.