Get your Minitel back, the COMPUTEL videotex BBS is back!

Christian Quest
Sep 15, 2017 · 11 min read

(original french version)

After sleeping more than 30 years and 5 years after the “official” shutdown of the Minitel (actually the shutdown of the “Télétel kiosk”, the famous 3615 and others) here is how I restarted my COMPUTEL videotex BBS on Apple IIe as it was running at the end of 1986…

Retour en 1984…

My very first Minitel (in fact it was officially my grand mother’s one)

The first Minitels are beginning to be distributed free of charge in Paris area as a replacement for the printed phonebook. I remember going to France Telecom local boutique get a Minitel thanks to my grandmother’s phone subscription… it was a Matra Minitel 1 that I still have!
I also had an Apple IIe since I was able to save money to replace my TRS-80 that I had for 3 years. My next investment is an Apple Tell card.
Very expensive stuff at that time, more than 6000 Francs (half the price of the Apple II itself), because it actually integrates most of the electronics of a Minitel to fit inside an Apple II.
Of course, we have the V23 modem (1200/75 baud) and also the whole video generator part allowing to have an output on SCART (color included) and composite video jack with a true image, identical to what we have on a real Minitel.
Very expensive Apple Tell card… that will be (very well) cloned. At the radio-club where I tinker almost every week I buy a “copper”, that is to say the bare printed circuit board, with the list of components to weld myself… components that we find in the Parisian electronics stores (to my knowledge all have closed since then). I solder all this patiently and here’s my Apple II that can act as Minitel.
What interests me most is the possibility of transforming my Apple to a server, i. e. to be called by Minitels because it was not mandatory to go through the famous “361x” like 3615* to connect with your Minitel to a server. With direct calls, the cost of connection was just the cost of telephone communication, which at the time was a flat rate of 0.73F for local call regardless of the duration. Of course it didn’t last long, France Telecom passed to a tax every 20mn then 10mn… around that time if I remember well.

PDF available at http://apple-iigs.info/doc/fichiers/pubappletell.pdf

Hello Informatique, the company that marketed this card designed by Roland Moreno (the father of the smart card) documented the entry points of its ROM to enable software developments. Some softwares such as Fakir, Télébasic, Télépom were available.

I can’t remember why I decide to write my own, probably because I wasn’t satisfied with the ones available… and here I am programming my own software to write videotex servers based on the documentation of these famous entry points.

Cristel

Christian + Minitel, here is Cristel!

The idea is simple: add new instructions to the Apple II Applesoft BASIC and make them easy to use… and this is possible because Apple has provided a mechanism to extend its language with the “&”.

Cristel therefore adds an &PRINT that does the same thing as a PRINT, but on the connected Minitel. More than twenty instructions are added to write in BASIC language you own videotex server: &PRINT, &INPUT, &COLOR, &HOME, etc…

Sample code from Cristel printed manual

Cristel, on the other hand, is written in 6502 assembly language. Its code is very optimised (I remember nights well filled to save a few bytes) the first versions was around 700 bytes and the source code of the most recent versions is barely more than 1000 lines and less than 2Kb of 6502 binary code.

COMPUTEL

I therefore write the logic of my own server in BASIC… waiting for a call (&WAIT), displaying the home page (&DRAW), then a menu to choose between different “services”: the site of the local computer club that I had created (BASICLUB), a few games, a local mail service(not, not pink), etc…

My server is therefore an Apple IIe, switched on 24 hours a day and as there are many calls, I subscribe to a second dedicated phone line.

Here is the general menu of COMPUTEL as it was looking in May 1985…

In 1985 I didn’t have any software to create videotex pages (too expensive), so I wrote mine “Rembrant” which, as you can see, didn’t handle colors and grayscale or semi-graphic characters at all!

It was closer to BBS than videotex, but you have to start somewhere…

micro-servers… and the AMISERV

On this main menu, the 5th choice “Minitel Servers” made it possible to access a list of other servers that others had set up. Many of them were running on Apple II, then came those on Telestrat (an Oric Atmos with a builtin modem), PC, Atari… a small network of friends, also on Apple II, started using my Cristel software.

We had in the end created the “Association des MIcro-SERVeurs”, the AMISERV and the directory of these micro-servers was gradually filling up and could be found on several micro-servers.

Here are some of the home pages I restored from my floppies (click on the link): ADN, CIDER1, Cosmos6502, Evil Dead, Kaezo, Mestel

From hobby to business…

Cristel was beginning to have some success, existed in 8 versions (for DOS or ProDOS, Apple Tell card, Digitelec modems, “reversed” Minitel the cheapest solution) and the idea of creating a company came up to commercialize this software, creation of servers, then also hosting services.

Cristel allowed me to write “MiniPlus”, a small Apple II software that allows you to save the pages viewed on Minitel to read them without being connected (saving connection time and cost).

This company is “JCA” (initials of the 3 founders), created in August 1985. JCA Informatique became JCA Télématique then JCA when in 1995 we started another aventure with the Internet…

This gave us some cash allowing the purchase of a couple more Apple II, page composition software (Protext but especially Sourigraph), a shared networked hard disk drive (Corvus Omninet with 11Mo of storage!).

The single phone line COMPUTEL becomes a “multichannel server center”, i. e. 4 channels… 4 Apple II, 4 phone lines, all interconnected by this networked hard disk drive.

It will switch to Macintosh around 1987 with Dragster, I will surely tell you about it in another post… in a few months !

Technical stopover in 2012

June 29,2012 to be accurate… this is the date when Orange stopped the Télétel kiosk, an information that was often picked up by the media as the “Minitel death”.

But no, it’s not the “Minitel death”, because the Minitel is the terminal, this death is for Télétel, 361x… and one can still set up a server without going through the now dead kiosk as we did in the mid 80s!

This is what I explained during an evening event organized by La Cantine in Paris on the occasion of this historic date. I met Julien, an American researcher and I discovered that he was in charge of a Minitel museum… in the USA. I came that evening with Minitels, a Dragster modem and its manual, but also a copy of my Cristel software and its manual which I donated to this museum.

Minitel exhibition during the “Connexion/Fin” event on June 29, 2012 at La Cantine in Paris — Cristel floppy and manuel on the left, Dragster modem and manual in the center

We then stayed in touch and the idea of running a server again has been in my head ever since.

In fact, I wanted to rebuild a local Dragster server on Macintosh for this evening, but I was missing a “master” modem that served as the Dragster system’s hardware protection…

My plan B for this event was a small Minitel+Arduino hack that displayed each tweet with the hashtag #ripminitel on a minitel.

Since I don’t have an Apple II anymore, I didn’t even consider going back to the 80s.

Back to 2017… the restoration of COMPUTEL

In 2017, Julien finalizes a book on the Minitel, published this summer… and it is the trigger of this restoration of COMPUTEL.

For years, my Apple II 5"1/4 floppy disks had been lying in the basement in a few boxes.

They haven’t been stored in optimal conditions… humidity, dust, a few mice… no idea if they are still legible and I haven’t had an Apple II for years.

So… I made a little trip on ebay to see how much an Apple II sells today. An Apple IIc was available for 150 euros… it’s the first in a series of purchases ;)

Quickly powered on as soon as I received it, reading of the floppy disks did not pose too many problems, apart from the rapid clogging of the magnetic head, which acts also as pickling head!

Time for me to discover that Apple II’s hackers are not so rare, hardware is still being developed and sold online like Ethernet cards, video adapters, accelerator cards (this changes from 6502 to 1MHz) but also diskette or hard disk drive emulators.

So I buy a “Floppyemu” (emulating floppy and hard disks), then an Apple IIe, an Apple Tell card, a mouse card (I still have the same mouse as the Macintosh Plus).

I now have everything I need to get COMPUTEL back online… I just to find in my floppy disks a complete and readable copy… and don’t skimp on alcohol and cotton swabs!

I found at least two full copies:

  • one from May 1985 which came from the “hobby” era on 2 floppy disks
  • one from the end of 1986 therefore JCA era which is a backup of the contents of the hard disk that was shared by the 4 Apple II.

I also found copies of two other servers from friends who will become associates in JCA… Barcet Service by Nicolas Barcet, and Cosmos6502 by Jean-Marc Danton and Laurent Dumonteil.

The restoration of the COMPUTEL backup (30 faces of diskettes) at the end of 1986 is a small adventure detailed in another article (in french).

I also found Cristel 6502 assembly source code… which is now on github!

VOIP telephone line…

Here is the Apple IIe ready with its Apple Tell card, its Floppyemu which emulates a hard disk with the contents of the restored backup.

I can connect locally, i. e. by plugging a Minitel directly into the phone jack of the Apple Tell card after a small forgotten but very well explained hack in the Cristel manual that I wrote more than 30 years ago (RTFMYW — Read The Fucking Manual You Wrote)… and the server works immediately just like it did more than 30 years ago!

COMPUTEL welcome screen… phone number has changed, the new one is +33 1 8421 8116

Only one telephone line is missing to allow calls to this server for all. I’m making an attempt with the analog VOIP phone output of my internet line (freebox from “Free” internet provider), but the results are inconclusive.

The problem comes from the codecs usually used in VOIP that compress the voice and are not very well suited to pass modem modulations. On the freebox, you can’t change the codec (the most suitable one is the G711 which is obviously not the one used bu default).

One more purchase on ebay of a used VOIP Linksys PAP2T Linksys adapter that allows to tune everything right (it’s almost too much) by logging into the SIP account provided my internet line (thank you Free for this very open and standard feature).

With another videotex hacker (zigazou) we find the right settings after a few calls. Then it’s Jelora who manages to connect.

L’envers du décor… Apple IIe Platinum (carte Apple Tell), Floppyemu et Linksys PAP2T pour la VOIP

As in 1985… a dedicated line is necessary so I order a dedicated VOIP line from OVH, because it costs almost nothing (0.99€ /month). After some technical-administrative adventures, I finally have my (geeky 2^n) number…

+33 1 8421 8116

Last little modification before the public official worldwide release… some update of the home page to replace the old number with the new one… doing that quick and dirty with an hex editor! (you can’t completely forget videotex sequences after working 13 years with them)

Why all this ?

First of all for fun… for the technical challenge as well as the preservation of a part of our common culture (Minitel was everywhere in France in the 90s) but also technical knowledge. Unfortunately all of this was passed by profit and loss in mid 2012.

There is little content available about the Minitel era, even though there have been up to 25,000 services on the Télétel kiosk!

Many companies have developed software, hardware and very few of this seems to have been preserved, archived.

It is the side effect of our digital world and dematerialization as well as the rapid evolution of technology that makes it difficult to reread computer media after a few decades (I have more trouble rereading CDRs or DATs from 1998 than floppies from 1986).

Next… the return of the micro-servers?

Millions of Minitels are sleeping all over France in cupboards, cellars, attics… sometimes (less and less) they are found on the garage doors, and there are always some for sale on ebay or leboncoin (sometimes a bit expensive for what it is).

The conditions seem to be more favourable today for the development of micro-servers than they were 30 years ago. Of course it will be marginal, but our telephone calls cost nothing nowadays !

A simple Minitel 2 with a Raspberry PI or even an Arduino can serve as a server and a VOIP line costs almost nothing.

I have a list of potential projects:

  • Apple II side: upgrade Cristel to work with a simple Minitel 2 or 12 (because these models have a phone module that directly detects phone rings)
  • still on the Apple II side, run my server in an emulator (like linapple on Linux) and allow a connection via Internet with the videotex emulator developed by zigazou
  • Macintosh side: restore a Dragster server… I have already restored the server contents since a backup CD-R in late 1998. I have to solve this master modem problem. I can recompile a version of Dragster without controlling the presence of this modem. For this, I have to dive back into MPW, MPW Pascal. Another way is to find in my mess, the famous EPROM that allowed me to make the change… I must have it somewhere since I don’t throw away much! Recompiling will probably be easier ;)
  • a Python version of Cristel… to easily develop servers in python, and micro-Python (what about an ESP8266 based micro-server ?)
  • and why not set up a Minitel museum… in France ? ;)

I got some help from…

… some may not even know about it :

  • Antoine (who sold me his Apple Tell card… and more help)
  • jelora
  • Julien
  • zigazou

Christian Quest / @cq94 on Twitter / @cquest@amicale.net on Mastodon

This english translation has been in large part made using https://www.deepl.com/translator

Christian Quest

Written by

37 ans d'informatique + 32 de base de données + 23 d'internet + 9 de cartographie = #OpenStreetMap + #opendata + #logiciel_libre

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