Tiny Operating System For Tiny Computer

Before the World Wide Web became ubiquitous as the de facto way to access electronic information, there were many other ways of retrieving information online. One of the most successful of these was Minitel, a French videotex service that lasted from 1980 all the way until 2012. But just because the service has been deactivated doesn’t mean its hardware can’t be used for modern builds like this Arduino-based operating system. (Google Translate from French)

Called ZARDOS, the operating system is built to run on an Arduino MEGA although a smaller version is available for the Uno. The Arduino is connected by a serial cable to the Minitel terminal. It can take input from a keyboard and PS/2 mouse and displays video on the terminal screen with the same cable. There is functionality built-in for accessing data on a cartridge system based on SD cards which greatly expands the limited capabilities of the Atmel chip as well, and there is also support for a speaker and a Videotex printer.

Even though the build uses a modern microcontroller, it gives us flashbacks to pre-WWW days with its retro terminal. All of the code is available on the project site for anyone looking to build an Arduino-based operating system, although it will take a little bit of hardware hacking to build a Minitel terminal like this. Either way, it’s a great way to revive some antique French hardware similar to a build we’ve seen which converts one into a Linux terminal.

Thanks to [troisieme_type] for the tip!

12 thoughts on “Tiny Operating System For Tiny Computer

  1. Really cool seeing that someone is working on these Minitel machines. I remember seeing these in multiple apartments when visiting France as kid in the 90s. From what I remember it was pretty common, even in households were no tech savvy people were living.. This hardware continuously reminds me how technology advance the France is (still as of today).

    However (like this Minitel) most of the innovative products/services I have seen over the years in France almost never made it outside of France.. I think that somehow a lot of customers and businesses are too much focusing on the France market/products.

    Either way; cool seeing these Minitel machines again. Was thinking back in the day that it would make a cool Bulletin board system..

    1. I second that, Minitel (aka TELETEL ?) was really neat! Over there in Germany, there also was a similar service, called “Bildschirmtext” (aka BTX, meaning screen text). It was later also called Datex-J (Datex-P was an X.25 network) and was upgraded with the KIT standard, however, the core system with the CEPT graphics still remained as a fallback. In it’s last years, it became “T-Online Classic”, if memory serves, and served as a secure gateway to home-banking (online banking). That online banking was one of its original puposes, maybe the most appealing one aside from online shopping. ;)

      BTX was quite colourful and pretty to look at, but it had one big design-flaw: It was expensive.
      Sure, there was a demo mode, the socalled “Gastzugang” (guest access), but it wasn’t enough.
      Which meant that BTX was finally used as a tool for business people, rather than by home users/ordinary citizens.
      Some people would say, that the service never reached the hearts of the German users (yes, they have those).
      Which was not a fault of the technology, though. The visually close Videotext (Teletext) service that
      was receptable via RF on TV sets, was a big success and still lives on, though.

      BTX also had Minitel-type devices, like the MultiTel device (by LOEWE ?). And C64 decoder cartridges.
      There also were many, many software-decoders, like the famous Amaris BTX Decoder.

      Another thing that hindered the success of BTX was the poor infrastructure.
      The data was originally traveling at 1200Baud/75Baud (?) over the landline.
      Either by accoustic coupler, modem or the famous DBT-03 unit (there also were other models).
      And last, but not least: ISDN. In the late 80s and the 90s, Germany was extremely focused on expanding ISDN infrastructure. It was perceived as so important, that the German releases of WfW 3.11 and Windows 95 had shipped with some kind of ISDN support. In case of WfW, this was done by including an additional diskette, sometimes. Or by shipping WfW 3.11 on OEM CD-ROMs that contained extra files for ISDN and Fax.
      Today, I think, DSL/Vectoring is like the new ISDN; a dead end no one realizes.

      Okay, back in time:Originally, the German postal service wanted to establish fibre connections country wide back in the 70s,but there due to political reasons, it never happened. Even today, Germany is still akin to a development country when it comes to fibre. Or maybe, it’s even worse. Instead of invesing in fibre, the money back then was spent on expanding the cable TV infrastructure.After re-union, the western postal service found out that East Germany had a terrible landline, with lots of noise/interference, so modem connections -as required for BTX- were extremely unreliable to establish. Also, at the time, the goverment-owned “Deutsche Bundespost” became a semi-private company called “Telekom AG”. You may have heard of it once or twice. It’s that, err, wonderful company that spun off into T-Online and T-Mobile at the time. Since then, the infrastructure went down hill, IMHO.

      Anyway, this is just a small story about BTX, to give an impression.
      Maybe there are some errors within, so please double check.
      Other countries, like Swiss and Austria perhaps had similar Videotex services.



      By the way, some games included references to BTX (list maybe incomplete):

      There also was German TV show from the early 90s called “Leonie Löwenherz” that made references to BTX.
      The main character, a lion, which had to hide from people, sometimes bought stuff online at “Quelle”, a former pioneer in mail order and teleshopping. This lead to funny situations, because the stuff turned out to be useless and expensive.


      1. Well you do have Airbus airliners. But the answer is probably one of both cost, language, and market size all in combination.
        French tech has a very limited consumer market. The French language is not as wide spread as English, Spanish, Chinese or so on. They do have a fairly large native market so a company must decide that it is wo sometimes you might not know that the Tech is from France at all for example SolidWorkOnce a software package has been translated to English just how do you know where it comes from? s. rth the effort to translate and compete in other markets. You mainly see French tech in more industrial settings and

      2. Just have to look for it. A random example that stands out because I’ve worked with them over the years. Eve, an advanced FPGA emulation company was started in France. They’ve since been acquired by Synopsys.

      3. As said before, language is a reason for products / idea not leaving the territory.
        Beeing a large enough country to develop industries adapted to a specific culture can be another reason : I believe you don’t see that much french cars in US. They are way smaller here than there, the french, european and east market is enough for car makers to live. (not telling that’s THE reason, but it can be one)
        France have had a long tradition of public research, too. This is a good things (or was, for several years reasearch credits are regularly cut down), as many inventions or discoveries can be used by whoever wants to exploit them. The bad thing is, quite often a lab discovers something, one minister or the others speaks about it, and how intelligent we are, and blah blah blah, and once it’s been publicly known, the discovery can no longer be patented.

        There are some technology that people don’t use directly, like nuclear plants, high speed trains, weapons (not proud of that…), planes
        Other that are used but not visible, like networks technologies.
        Other that are used by very specific people, i.e. software : CATIA, SolidWorks, KiCad.
        And others that are so much everywhere that you don’t even wonder, like visa cards.

        There is one last things : french people are proud (probably too much !), so they feel glorified to know that they use tools that nobody else has. ;)

  2. Hey, thanks for this article I was really not expecting to be featured here!
    Yes indeed, ZARDOS name is a tribute to John Boorman Zardoz movie (1974) with Sean Connery.

    Minitel was pretty ubiquitous when I was a kid and I clearly remember using it to search stuff or to get my first school exams results. It was also used in my home town public library network as terminal to find books.

    Thanks for your interest, so far ZARDOS is just a proof of concept and I still have a lot of work to improve it.

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