France Telecom to Test Internet Screen Phones Using IBM Platform
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France Telecom plans to begin testing in April on a screen phone that uses an IBM-developed software platform to give Minitel users quick, easy access to both the Internet and the Minitel, France's closed-loop e-commerce network, company sources said.
"The screen-phone terminal is intended to give Minitel users who are uncomfortable with PCs a very simple, familiar way to connect to the Internet," said a France Telecom spokesman, adding that, "it will relieve the user of all the technical complexity of the Internet."
Analysts here said that, if it catches on with France's 17 million Minitel users, the Internet screen phone could potentially boost France's low level of Internet use, variously estimated at from 2-3 million people, compared to about 6 million in Germany.
The thin-client, instant-on screen phones were manufactured by Alcatel and Matras. According to France Telecom, pushing a key on the keyboard automatically connects for complete access to either the Internet or Minitel network, at a speed ranging from 9,600 to 33,600kbs. The Internet hookup will take the user to a France Telecom portal featuring a basic selection of services such as e-mail, banking, train or plane ticket purchases and stock-market transactions.
Dubbed "ISI," the French acronym for "integrated Internet services," the six-month test will provide the lightweight terminals at no cost to some 350-400 professionals and private individuals in two French cities. To gauge the product's marketability to different groups, half the participants will be non-computers users; the other half will be people who have computers with web browsers, said Thielemans. The users will pay an unspecified amount for their access time.
France Telecom declined to say how it might price the terminals or the service.
IBM retains the right to sell the platform in other markets, such as to telephone companies in other countries and ISPs, said Herve Precioso, director of marketing at IBM France. The software can also be adapted to such devices as mobile phones and palmtop computers, as well as PCs. It can be used for both analog and digital access, he said.
Precioso expects the screen phones to appeal more to Minitel users than to PC users. "They aren't going to replace PC access to the Internet," he said.
A precursor of the Internet, the Minitel was developed in the 1980s. Connected to the telephone system, it has some 25,000 databases and offers most of the same kinds of services available on the Internet. It became extremely popular when France Telecom gave away basic terminals to its telephone customers.
Safe for transactions, simple, and, above all, in French, the Minitel is often sited as the main reason the French have lagged their Western European neighbors in Internet use. French businesses made 2.3 billion euros in sales through the Minitel in 1998 and less than 250 million euros on the Internet, according to industry sources.