What were you doing in 1983? Even if you were already born, of adult age, and at the leading edge of technology, marveling at the revolutionary new Lotus 1-2-3 software on your IBM PC, you almost certainly weren't launching a web startup. Unless you happened to be French.
In 1983, 16 year old Xavier Niel got his entrepreneurial start by learning how to code on his Apple 2 and launching his first startup, a network of online sex hotlines and dating services. By 1984 he was pulling in the equivalent of thousands of dollars a month in income through his adult themed apps. His marketing tactics were ruthless and he is remembered by many of his competitors as a brigand – he used to log on to other dating services and message boards under fake names and lure customers to use his site. Although convicted several times for his fraudulent business tactics, by 1987 he had dropped out of school and sold his first company. His next venture, a variety of apps and services all marketed under a company called Iliad proved to be extremely successful.
Before the U.S. even had its first ISP, before any of you reading this had a home internet connection, Xavier was well on his way to becoming part of France's first batch of startup millionaires. It was all possible thanks to an early internet before the Internet, an app store before the App Store, and a little terminal called the Minitel.
In the early eighties the French government vaulted its country's tech industry a decade ahead of the rest of the world by introducing a computer terminal called the Minitel. Rolled out as a beta product in 1980 and launched to the French public in 1983, every household with a landline subscription was eligible for a free Minitel. Its killer launch app was a digital version of the yellow pages – to encourage adoption the government cancelled the production of paper yellow pages, so to access them citizens needed a Minitel.
It was a heavy handed marketing strategy that only a government could implement, but it worked. By the end of the eighties 6.5 million households had a Minitel and by the year 2000 25 million citizens out of a total population of 55 million were still using their Minitels!
Developers Developers Developers
In 1984 the government allowed developers to create services for the Minitel. The government took a 30% cut and passed the rest on to developers (sound familiar?) creating the world's first app store. From a user's perspective using apps on the Minitel was frictionless – you were just billed for what you used through your phone bill.
An ad for 36 15 Game . Every app had a unique # you would dial to access it.
As you might imagine developers flocked to the Minitel. By the early 90s there were tens of thousands of Minitel apps to play games, bet on horse races, check the weather, check train schedules and buy a ticket, view horoscopes and get your fortunes told, manage your bank account, and there was even a precursor to email.
How big was this app store? In the nineties it was pulling in over a billion USD a year! This is an astronomical sum when you consider France's population size. Though the crossover point is near, the Minitel in its lifetime paid out more to developers than Apple has to iOS developers to date. Companies would advertise their apps in the subway, on highway billboards, and on television. Folks like Xavier made fortunes that they used to launch even more ambitious ventures – thanks to his early understanding of the potential of the web he started what became France's largest ISP, Free. He is now worth upwards of 8 billion dollars.
The Killer Use-Case
In the earliest days of the Minitel, Xavier had already figured out the killer use case. The Minitel Rose (Pink Minitel) services as they were called became, by far, the most popular available on the Minitel. The Minitel Rose services were the Tinders, the Grindrs, the OkCupids, and everything in between for the French market in the 80s and 90s, accessed exclusively through the Minitel. The reputation of the French as romantically open seems to be well deserved. To top it off, the French got a couple decades of practice with anonymous hookup and dating services that the rest of the world is still trying to catch up on. Imagine what America would be like today if folks in their 40s and 50s had access to a wide variety of real-time, anonymous, and ubiquitous hook-up and dating services in their teens and twenties! Online dating has just started going mainstream in America.The Minitel might explain a cultural difference or two between the French and the rest of the world...
Most famous was 36 15 ULLA, with its risqué advertising campaigns and upwards of a million unique users at its peak.
"What do men dream of?"
36 15 ULLA was one of many dating apps that allowed users to advertise their interests and desires as well as find and message nearby singles. These services brought in the equivalent of billions of dollars revenues, a third of which went to the government. Shockingly, though they were used by escorts, prostitutes, and minors, the government chose to never censor these services and instead profited immensely from them.
The Minitel Today
The Minitel network was taken offline in June 2012 even though a couple million people still used their Minitels. It opened up a whole new world to those that used the machine, giving them access to not just services but a way of thinking the rest of the world would have to wait a decade or more for. While Americans struggle to get their elderly online, the French spent last year weaning theirs off their Minitels. As Jacques Chirac put it, a boulangère in France knew how to check her bank statement on her Minitel whereas one in New York had no way of doing so.
This incredible success wouldn’t have been possible without the extreme support of the French government, however. This was perhaps the Minitel's greatest failure as well - because it was state run, it didn't seek out and couldn't respond to market feedback. It had no real ambition to go worldwide - it was made by the French for the French. It stagnated and was eventually overtaken by the Internet and personal computing as we know it. The free market wins again.