By Harry McCracken | Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 9:28 pm
The World Wide Web is such a young medium that many of the best sites from its earliest days are still very much still with us, such as Yahoo (founded in 1994), Amazon.com (1994), CNET (1994), eBay (1995). and Salon.com (1995). It’s a little as if I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Milton Berle Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Huntley/Brinkley were all on the air in 2008.
But for every site that’s been lucky enough to have a long and happy existence, there have been countless ones whose lives were cut short. Sometimes their deaths were huge stories; sometimes they quietly fizzled away. And even though many of their untimely passings were self-inflicted, it’s still worth celebrating the fact that they existed at all.
Here, then, are quick tributes to ten sites that deserved to live longer than they did. My selection process was highly scientific: I compiled my list by thinking over which ones I missed most, and by asking some friends for their input. I tried to stick to ones that didn’t do themselves in by eventually becoming lousy or irrelevant. (That’s why F*cked Company isn’t here–that particular dot-com scandal sheet started out good, then became fetid, then became a ghost town.)
My list of sites that didn’t deserve to die is almost certainly different than yours–it would be pretty startling if were exactly the same, at least. So once you’ve read my picks, why not nominate some of your own in the comments?
My.MP3.com (January-May 2000)
What it was: An online service (part of Michael Robertson’s MP3.com) that let you listen to streaming music from anywhere, once you had proved you owned the CDs in question by inserting them in your PC’s CD drive.
What its loss was tragic: My.MP3.com made it really easy to enjoy all the music you owned, from anywhere you could get an Internet connection. Regardless of what the music industry thought of it–more on that in a moment–you’d have had to have a severe complex to feel guilty about enjoying music you’d paid for in the form of CDs.
On the other hand: You could only listen to a streaming version of a CD if MP3.com had ripped it –and while its library was extensive, it wasn’t all-encompassing.
Where it went: There have been multiple examples of the music industry putting the kibosh on innovative online services over copyright issues, but the rise, fall, and death of My.MP3.com happened with a speed that’s still breathtaking. On January 12th, the service went online. On January 24th, the Recording Industry Association of America sued MP3.com over it. In April, the RIAA won, and in May the service went online. MP3.com lived on, and even tried to revive My.MP3.com in legal form. But it was never the same. Oddly enough, MP3.com ended up being acquired by a big music company–Universal Vivendi–that ended up killing it; the current CNET site at that domain is unrelated to the original one except in name,
Adequate substitutes: I’m not sure if there is one–at least not one that’s both legal and as simple as My.Mp3.com. But software such as Simplify Media will let you stream MP3s you’ve burned from CDs across the Internet, which accomplishes something similar, albeit in a less effortless way.
HotBot (1996-present, but only sort of)
What it was: A search engine from Wired Digital, the online arm of Wired magazine, which was powered by Inktomi‘s search technology.
Why its loss was tragic: For its time, HotBot was a remarkably fast, relevant search engine compared to AltaVista and other contenders–and hey, it had a cool name. It felt like the first second-generation search engine. Upshot: There was a time when it was the favorite search tool of many discerning people (such as…well, me).
On the other hand: I can’t think of anything bad to say about HotBot in its prime.
Where it went: In 1998, Wired Digital was acquired by Lycos, which stopped investing in it just as other search engines started to improve in quality by leaps and bounds. Before long, HotBot served as a good example of how a hip, innovative site can become a forgotten laggard in very little time. (Come to think of it, Lycos itself ended up proving the same point.) In a technical sense, HotBot still exists–you can go to HotBot.com and search the Web. But it’s just a prosaic front end for Yahoo, LyGO (who?), and MSN. It makes me a little sad to see the once-beloved site in its current state.
Adequate substitutes: Here’s a useful newcomer among search engines you may like.
What it was: A wildly ambitious online grocer, cofounded by Louis Borders of the bookstore chain that bears his name; at its height, it delivered in ten major cities.
Why its loss was tragic: I confess that I’ve never ordered so much as a tin of deviled ham online. But I have friends who still get a little emotional when the subject of Webvan comes up–they loved it that much, and can still describe produce they received from it close to a decade ago. At least some of these folks haven’t bonded with any other online grocer since.
On the other hand: Webvan wasn’t perfect–despite the millions it invested in infrastructure and technology, it ran out of Thanksgiving foodstuffs in 2000 and its Website couldn’t handle the onslaught of turkey hunters. And when it went out of business, it blamed its demise in part on declining volume of orders, which would seem to indicate that not everyone who tried it loved it.
Where it went: Webvan poured hundreds of millions of dollars into huge, state-of-the-art warehouses, but never got enough business to make the investment pay off; the public company’s stock, once worth $34, fell to six cents. In 2001, it was forced to close up shop, selling off its real estate, technology, and hundreds of Aeron chairs, and donating unsed food to charity.
Adequate substitutes: Peapod, which predates Webvan, is still delivering on the east coast and in the midwest; major brick-and-mortar grocers like Safeway and Albertson’s do online delivery. But seven years after Webvan collapsed, the vast majority of grocery shopping is still done the old fashioned way, by trudging around a supermarket with a cart.
The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs (2006-2008)
What it was: An anonymous (at first ) blog written in the voice of Apple’s Steve Jobs, which was profane, mean, funny, and wildly imaginative–and which got better and better as Fake Steve developed into a character who was distinct from real Steve.
Why its loss was tragic: Few blogs have ever been as clever as Fake Steve Jobs at its best; few games have ever been as entertaining as trying to figure out who wrote it.
On the other hand: For months, people kept thinking they’d figured out who Fake Steve was, but getting it wrong. But on August 5th, 2007, New York Times Brad Stone correctly identified FSJ as actually being Forbes reporter Dan Lyons. The blog went on and remained inventive and amusing, but the end of the guessing game inevitably took some of the zing out of it.
Where it went: On July 9th, 2008, Lyons–er, Fake Steve–wrote a farewell post. The real Dan Lyons, who had recently left Forbes for Newsweek, said he was ending the blog because of worries over Steve Jobs’ health and launched a new blog called, logically enough, Real Dan.
Adequate substitutes: Real Dan reads very much like Fake Steve, except for the unavoidable, unfortunate fact that he must refer to Steve Jobs in the third person. And the Fake Steve posts are still available at the original site as well as in a book.
Full disclosure: Fake Steve once blogged about me.
Why its loss was tragic: Just because it was a promising site that did what it did well, with a punchy review format that rated everything on three factors: quality, style, and value. And then as now, Consumer Reports was one of the few sites on the Web that charged a membership fee; Productopia, which attempted to support itself with advertising, was free.
On the other hand: You could argue that on the Web, it’s smarter to get your product reviews from specialist sites such as Edmunds, Digital Camera Resource, TimeZone, and (free plug for my former employer) PC World than to go to one generalist site. It was impossible for Productopia to cover everything, especially since it tried to with evaluations by professionals on its staff, rather than cheap-but-useful content in the form of user reviews.
Where it went: Before the dot-com collapse, investors were giddy enough to give Productopia’s founders almost $22 million; those founders were equally giddy, as shown by moves such as spending $4 million for a huge ad campaign–which appeared only in New York and San Francisco. But Productopia closed after it had spent all its money and couldn’t get more; its 16 months of existence was brief even by dot-com disaster standards.
Adequate substitutes: ConsumerReports.org remains the gold standard in comprehensive reviews sites. Consumer Search–which is where you go if you try to go to Productopia.com these days–is a useful reviews aggregator. And when I’m shopping for something like a blender or an elliptical trainer, I always check out the surging sea of user reviews at Amazon.com.