Gérard Théry, one of the fathers of Minitel, and craftsman of French-style telecoms

Gérard Théry in Paris on January 16, 1978 (AFP / Georges PAVUNIC)

“Servant of the State” with the soul of an “entrepreneur”: Gérard Théry, who has just died, played a driving role in the adventure of Minitel in France, one of the precursors of the Internet who then fell into disuse.

“It was a tremendous innovation. What saddens me is that it has not been exploited at all. With everything that was in the Minitel, software, components, we could have known an extraordinary adventure and make a European Internet “, still imagined in 2012 this former Director General of Telecommunications (1974-1981), ancestor of France Telecom, questioned by the site Economiematin.

This polytechnician, who died on July 18 in Paris at the age of 88, worked all his life in the field of telecommunications, largely within the State, and his main feat of arms is to have driven Minitel.

This cubic terminal giving access to videotext, delivered free of charge with the telephone, was for a long time one of the French flagships before being supplanted in use by the World Wide Web in the 1990s and dying out on June 30, 2012, 30 years ago after its commercial launch.

“He was a servant of the State, but not an administrator, he had the temperament of an entrepreneur”, remembers to AFP Bernard Marti, engineer in the Joint Center for Television and Telecommunications Studies (CCETT ) and who worked on the project.

“Its initial goal was to revive the telephone network to make up for the abysmal delay taken by France” in the mid-1970s. “It has been so successful that it has put industrialists in overheating,” notes Mr. Marti.

– “Vocation to innovate” –

At its peak, in 1996, Minitel listed more than 10,000 content providers for 26,000 active services. Alas, the turnover peaks at one billion euros and the technology has never managed to be exported.

Gérard Théry in Nantes on May 31, 1999 (AFP / Frank PERRY)

Nine million terminals were in circulation at the start of the 2000s. There were still nearly half a million die-hard users at the end of 2011, six months before the end of Minitel due to technical requirements.

“There were all the elements to make a general public messaging system. But France has lost this vocation to innovate”, regretted in Economiematin Mr. Théry, passed by the Ministry of PTT in 1955 adviser to Minister Jacques Marette, in 1966-1967.

“I considered (the Minitel, editor’s note) as a great thing even if it ended in a dead end”, he still estimated in 2019, in an intervention with the Association for the History of Telecommunications and computer science.

He also recognized that the French “telecommunicants” – including himself, author in 1994 of a report on “the information highways” which considered the Internet “ill-suited to the provision of commercial services” – had missed a “very big conceptual shift”: “the passage from switched to routed”.

“A switched Internet network is centralized, information is exchanged as in a railway line”, illustrates Mr. Marti. Conversely, “in the routed system, there are plenty of routes to get data, the internet is more fragmented, decentralized.”

A logic which ended up winning but which was not that of M. Théry.


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