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News, Games, Dating : Videotext--In France, It's the Rage

September 12, 1986|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — A young man, in a new French pop tune, falls in love with a young lady through his videotext computer but cannot reach her anymore.

"I am not receiving any more messages," sings Noe Willer in his song of modern technological woe. " . . . The stop-connection button is too cruel. To what network are you now plugged in?"

The song, sad as it may sound, celebrates an extraordinary technological phenomenon in France. Videotext information systems are failing throughout the world, and Americans, in experiments, have found videotext confusing and of little use. But the French system is a raging success.

Almost 2 million French homes and offices are now equipped with videotext computer terminals, known in France as Minitels and linked to computers through regular telephone lines. Almost 3,000 services are available to every Minitel user, who employs a keyboard to write on the screen of his or her terminal or call up information on it.

Electronic Directory

The French use their Minitels to look up telephone numbers in an electronic directory, call up the latest news and sports results, write anonymous messages, make blind dates, read pornography, play games, reserve seats on trains, check bank balances, study airline schedules, find weather forecasts, question politicians and plug into a myriad of other sources of information.

One service known as "Hebraica" features Jewish jokes, mostly bad ones. Another provides the text of the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man. A third promotes natural medicine, recommending that overweight people take a bath in sea algae while dieting.

Other services on the Minitel teach French grammar, sell clothing, rate new automobiles and plot the course of the current world championship chess match between Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov on a board minutes after each move is made.

Persuasive Evidence

The French system, which is still evolving, is persuasive evidence that despite all the frustrations elsewhere in the world, there is a future for bringing into the home a wide variety of electronic services and information.

The French success has been so dizzying that the government has started to fret about one of the most popular uses, the exchange of anonymous, often sexual messages. In a statement issued early in September, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications said it was "strongly concerned by an abuse of videotext for the goal of prostitution or of assaults on good morals."

The ministry said it will team up with the Ministry of Justice to put an end to these "shocking practices." But anonymous message boards produce so much revenue for the government and are so cumbersome to monitor that it is hard to believe that the ministry will follow through on its threat.

Danger of Addiction

Success has spawned another problem. Sending and receiving anonymous messages and playing video games can become addictive. A shy and lonely bachelor may feel a heady sense of power communicating anonymously with women who are using code names such as Mimi and Amour. A teen-ager may find it fun to while away an hour or two playing a game called "Kidnaping in the Paris Metro."

But there is a price for the power and the fun. French videotext addicts are soon overwhelmed by the size of their bimonthly telephone bills, which contain videotext user fees .

"I looked at my first bill--and then I packed up the Minitel and put it in the closet," said one university professor.

"I use the Minitel in my office to send messages," said a 23-year-old woman who sells photocopying machines, "because it is just too expensive at home. A lot of people use the Minitel in the office because it does not cost them anything."

Sensitive to this problem, the government has said that it may soon lower the telephone charges for using the Minitel.

Although tryouts of the French videotext system began in 1981, the real push for it came two years ago when the state-run telephone monopoly started to distribute large numbers of free Minitels to telephone subscribers. There are now 1.9 million Minitels in use, and the government hopes to have 2.6 million distributed by the end of the year.

Increasing Use of Services

Use of the services increases 10% a month. In June, the French connected their Minitels for almost 3 million hours.

There is little doubt that the success of videotext in France is due, in large part, to the free distribution of the terminals. Nothing like that has been done on a significant scale in the United States.

"The Minitel would not be successful in France without the government," said Antoine Michel, the director of news services for Parisien Libere, the most popular service on the system. "It is the government that subsidized the experiments and provides the Minitels. A private company would not have the resources to hand out Minitels for free."

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