Friday, February 20, 2009

Two Technological Tales: Email and Minitel

We tend to think that a technology which failed to diffuse must have been a bad idea. But, there are technologies, which undergo long social adoption processes and eventually achieve mainstream adoption. These long social adoption processes, if at all acknowledged, are usually attributed off-handedly to technical issues. Yet, diffusion delays are often related to a complex interaction of factors, many of which are not related to technical difficulties but to individual adoption decisions. In this post I want to use the stories of two eventually successful technologies, which underwent long social adoption processes in order to underscore the need to focus legal attention and resources on the user as an adopter.

The first story is about videotext systems. We often marvel at how the Internet transformed our lives: from the abundance of information to the conveniences of online shopping. The Internet has reached mainstream adoption in the mid-1990s. But, few realize that the majority of the French population has enjoyed the conveniences of the Internet from the early 1980s through use of a videotext system called Minitel. Minitel consisted of a small monitor and keyboard, which used the phone connection to transmit information. Minitel was used for online banking, travel reservations, information services, online grocery shopping and messaging services. All in all it encompassed many of the features we have come to associate with the Internet.

While the Minitel was introduced in France in 1982 and reached mainstream adoption by 1985, similar videotext systems were launched in the United States, most European countries and Japan, yet these systems were not adopted. The residents of most of the world had to wait until the mid-1990s to enjoy the conveniences the French enjoyed a decade earlier.

The second tale is about the email. Most people consider the email to be a 1990s technology. But, it was in 1971 that the first email was sent between computers. The major technological difficulties were overcome by the early 1980s with the adoption of the uniform TCP/IP standard. Commercial email, in fact, existed during the 1970s. The Queen of England sent her first email over the Atlantic in 1976. Jimmy Carter’s campaign also used email in 1976. Then why have most of us started using email only during the mid-1990s? Technological issues alone fail to account for the time lag.

The stories of the videotext systems and the email leave many questions unanswered. What prevented users from adopting these technologies earlier? What could have been done to accelerate diffusion? I hope to further explore these issues. But, my main goal in this post was to use these stories to illustrate the importance of shifting the legal regime’s attention and resources toward regulating user adoption behavior because of its important role in technological diffusion delays.


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