An alliance between IBM and France Telecom announced today appears intent on pulling off an interesting double - strengthening IBM's position in the appliance/Network Computer arena while reinforcing France Telecom's on the hearts, minds and wallets of France's e-commerce friendly public.
The central paradox of the French online experience, you see is that via minitel the country was years ahead of the rest of the world. All over France people don't understand computers, but they're wired anyway, don't really grasp that they're wired, and use the systems like crazy. Minitel is a cheap, ubiquitous system used for chatting, dating, phone directores, buying insurance, all sorts of stuff that wannabe Internet commerce sites would give their eye-teeth to be able to do - profitably. Which is another point about Minitel. France Telecom takes revenue for it, and then redistributes this to what you might call the Minitel 'sites' - so why should they want to do the same on the Web, for free?
On the one hand France wants to embrace the Internet, on the other France Telecom and its business customers see their revenues vanishing. So the deal with IBM for Minitel 2 appears to have rather less of an Internet flavour than has so far been anticipated. It will use low-cost access devices, including screenphones, and it appears that it will be a more controlled (i.e. France Telecom controlled) network than one would expect from a standard Internet system.
It will however be a huge deal - Minitel worked because France Telecom made it ubiquitous, dishing out heavily subsidised terminals to its subscribers. That's a lot of client hardware, and a lot of servers to go with it. This doesn't mean the system can ignore the Web completely - France telecom understands that such a position is no longer tenable - but it should still be possible to build on current French assets and preserve, even grow, revenue rather than rip it all out and start again.
Whether this will play in other countries, as the partners anticipate, is another matter altogether. It will, they say, be based on open Internet standards, but it's difficult to see how the Minitel pricing model could operate in conjunction with these. ®