National information infrastructure

Lessons from stone-age telematics36

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Lessons from stone-age telematics36

With its low speed, poor graphics and dumb terminals, the Minitel system does certainly not give a good idea of what the information society will be in the future. However, with a 10 year history, a significant base of users and a genuine market situation (services are sold and not free), the Minitel experience can provide useful lessons on social needs with respect to information services.

· The Christmas toy effect. During the first months of usage, users generate heavy traffic directed to a great range of services. After this discovery period (which lasts around two months), most users tend to rationalize their consumption and to focus on a few services; they also become much more sensitive to the value for money of services37.

· The importance of a trigger service. The electronic directory has played the role of a magnet service which ushered people in the Minitel galaxy. It has attracted new users to Minitel, made them familiar with the system and after a while got them to use other services. One can think that E-mail plays a similar role in the development of the Internet.

· The declining importance of communication activities compared to information retrieving. While messaging services played an instrumental role in the growth of Minitel traffic, they tend to decline over time. The magic of communication services (forums, messaging services, chatlines, etc.) primarily functions during the discovery period of Minitel.

· The marginality of advertising within services. Advertising did not develop within general Minitel services. Attempts to provide cheap services financed by advertising have generally failed. This may be due to the format of Minitel services (pages which contain little information, poor graphics). However, a number of companies have developed their own services to advertise their products (often in complement to TV or magazines commercials).

· The crucial role of advertising for services. The long-term viability of services depends less on their specific value than on their notoriety. Service providers which do not constantly advertise their brand and offering, quickly fail. If broadcast media's services are doing well, it is mainly due to the impact of the commercials they regularly air for their own services.

· The failure of print media in packaging information services. Print media's services did not succeed when they tried to play a packaging/editing function for other services. Along with the decline of traffic experienced by print media's services, this suggests that the concept of videotex as a kind of electronic newspaper has not been successful.

Issues and Prospects for the Future

Which conduits carry information services?

Is the building of a brand new network necessary to develop IS in France? The question has been constantly permeating the debate around IS and given different answers.

· "High-tech colbertists" calls for a new infrastructure because they prioritize the technical coherence of the network over demand. Their approach relies on the idea that a new infrastructure will create a demand for new services. It is also shaped by an egalitarian vision of the Information society in which anybody should benefit from new technological developments.

· For France Télécom, network developments should be incremental and linked to market niches. When demand appears for specific services, new infrastructures can be build up. Only some categories of users would really need IS on the sort term, but certainly not the "bike-riders".

· French cable operators' approach to IS is mostly driven by their desire to get into telephony. Their strategy for IS is currently limited to the up-grading of systems in specific areas rather than shaped by an overall vision of the information society.

· Strategies adopted or prepared by major actors of the "content industry" reveal that they remain unclear about the way they will provide their services in the future. While they envision to use different kinds of telecommunication networks, multimedia groups continue to invest in products such CD-ROMs, PCs software, digital video disks, (and also in movie theaters). The Minitel industry even expressed some doubts about the necessity of building IS. According to one of its representative, it would suffice to increase the speed of the Minitel network and to adapt modems to international standards (an investment estimated to 200 million FF!) so that Minitel terminals can be replaced by PCs38.

What is the demand for information services?

The answer to the question of the conduits depends on the nature, range and number of services to be carried on IS. and on the categories of users to serve, two elements which are still unclear. Will there be really a demand for on-line information? Do people really need so large amounts of information as promised by the IS? Market estimates for information services vary greatly (as the Breton report illustrates). However, the problem with such estimates is not so much their contrasting results than their conception of demand. The social dynamics shaping the demand and uses of information services are rarely taken into account. For instance, much of the current IS vision is an extrapolation of the ways the Internet is currently used. But the professional characteristics of Internet users and their specific social environments are often neglected. This may lead to wrong interpretations (such as the assumption that there is a global information market).

As recent research work has shown (Silverstone et al., 1992), the introduction of information and communication technologies into homes involves a complex process, structured through gender and age based relationships, and constrained by material factors such as the level of disposable income or the amount of space available for shared or private use. The economics of IS will largely depend on the ability of operators and service providers to understand the moral economy of the households.

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