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But back in 1983 it was like nothing anyone had seen before, eventually growing to have more than 20,000 online services before the World Wide Web even got off the ground.

In Silicon Valley today, those who lived through the Minitel era tend to view it as the epitome of how not to build and operate an online system: They believe that letting the government design and run it just invited disaster.

, or PAVIs, provided an interface to a directory of known Minitel services, identified by short mnemonic codes.

For example, rail travelers bought tickets from 3615 SNCF (SNCF being an acronym for Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer, the French railroad), news junkies gathered at 3615 LEMONDE ( in French) browsed the personal ads at 3615 MEC.

Somehow, Minitel needed to attract both users and service providers at the same time.

To kick-start the process, the PTT ordered millions of Minitel terminals (built by French manufacturers such as Telic-Alcatel and Matra) and made them available at no cost to everyone in the country who had a telephone line.

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Former French presidents Charles de Gaulle and George Pompidou had recently died.

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It was a hybrid system—a public platform for private innovation. To initiate a connection, a user manually dialed a local gateway using a telephone handset.

Prompted by the growth of Minitel’s user population, entrepreneurs jumped at the opportunity to create new services.

These startups benefited from a novel payment system built into the Minitel platform that lowered the barrier to entry.

The Arab oil embargo caused energy prices to quadruple for a time. And France had to face the fact that its telephone network was one of the worst in the industrialized world.

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Fewer than 7 million telephone lines served 47 million French citizens, and the country’s elite felt that the domination of U. firms in telephone equipment, computers, databases, and information networks threatened their national sovereignty. In an influential 1978 report to President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, titled .Like URLs today, these codes were printed in magazines, shown in television commercials, and plastered on the sides of buses.

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