By Harry McCracken | Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 2:30 am
Old computer products, like old soldiers, never die. They stay on the market–even though they haven’t been updated in eons. Or their names get slapped on new products–available only outside the U.S. Or obsessive fans refuse to accept that they’re obsolete–long after the rest of the world has moved on.
For this story–which I hereby dedicate to Richard Lamparski, whose “Whatever Became of…?” books I loved as a kid–I checked in on the whereabouts of 25 famous technology products, dating back to the 1970s. Some are specific hardware and software classics; some are services that once had millions of subscribers; some are entire categories of stuff that were once omnipresent. I focused on items that remain extant–if “extant” means that they remain for sale, in one way or another–and didn’t address products that, while no longer blockbusters, retain a reasonably robust U.S. presence (such as AOL and WordPerfect).
If you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that some products are still with us at all–and will be saddened by the fates of others. Hey, they may all be inanimate objects, but they meant a lot to some of us back in the day.
Click on to continue–or, if you’re in a hurry, use the links below to skip ahead to a particular section.
What they were: The printer you probably owned if you had a PC in the home from the late 1970s until the early-to-mid-1990s. Models like the Epson FX-80 and Panasonic KX-P1124 were noisy and slow, and the best output they could muster was the optimistically-named “near letter quality.” But they were affordable, versatile, and built like tanks.
What happened: Beginning in the early 1990s, inkjet printers from HP, Epson, and Canon started to get pretty good–their output came far closer to rivaling that of a laser printer than dot-matrix ever could. And then, in the mid-1990s, they added something that killed the mass-market dot-matrix printer almost instantly: really good color. (I still remember having my socks knocked off by the original Epson Stylus Color when I saw it at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1994.) There was simply no comparison between even the best dot-matrix printer and a color inkjet.
Current whereabouts: Nobody ever thinks about dot-matrix printers anymore, but they haven’t gone away–my local Office Depot still stocks them, in fact. That’s because they have at least two valuable features that inkjet and laser models can’t match: The fact that the dot-matrix printhead hits the paper with a hard whack means they’re perfect for printing multiple-part forms, and their use of tractor-feed mechanisms rather than dinky trays lets them print thousands of pages without a paper refill. Consequently, small businesses everywhere refuse to give them up. It won’t startle me if there are still Epsons productively hammering out invoices and receipts a couple of decades from now, assuming we still use paper at all.
What they were: Dial-up modems from the company whose founder, Dennis Hayes, essentially invented the PC modem in the 1970s. The commands he devised became such a standard that all dial-up modems use them to this day. Hayes dominated the modem business for years–it was as synonymous with the product category it pioneered as any tech company before or since.
What happened: Well, dial-up modems don’t matter as much as they once did, in case you hadn’t noticed. But Hayes’ decline and fall dates to well before the death of dial-up: The company stubbornly kept prices high even in the face of much cheaper competition, and thought its future lay in making ISDN modems, a market that never took off. It declared bankruptcy in 1994 and again in 1998, and was liquidated in 1999.
Current whereabouts: In 1999, Zoom Telephonics–the company whose dirt-cheap modems played a major role in crushing Hayes–bought the Hayes name. It continues to market a few Hayes-branded modems. But it’s a pretty obscure fate for a once-mighty brand–I didn’t know it was still extant at all until I checked.
What it was: Sony’s format for pint-sized recordable audio discs, introduced in 1992. The idea was that it combined the best qualities of compact discs and cassette tapes into one high-quality, portable package that could contain up to eighty minutes of music.
What happened: MiniDisc found some fans–it was popular in Asia, and among musicians. But it never gained much support from the music industry, so few prerecorded albums were available. And within a few years of its introduction, it found itself competing with digital downloads–and while Sony introduced NetMD, a MiniDisc variant that supported MP3, it made it remarkably unappealing by adding copy protection to your tracks as you transferred them to disc. Why would you choose NetMD when a multitude of players, such as those from Diamond and Creative, let MP3s be MP3s? Good question!
Current whereabouts: In 2004, Sony upgraded the MiniDisc format with Hi-MD, a higher-capacity, more flexible standard that was backwards compatible with MiniDiscs. It garnered some admiration among audiophiles for the high quality of its recording capabilities. But as of 2009, only one Hi-MD device remains in Sony’s lineup, the MZ-M200. It’s aimed at musicians and journalists who need to make recordings on the go. The moment it disappears, we can officially declare MiniDisc dead.
What they were: The black-and-white CRT that most businesses and many homes used with computers from the 1970s through the late 1980s–and they worked just fine, since most DOS applications made little use of color, and early Macs didn’t support it at all.
What happened: Graphical user interfaces, multimedia, and games all made universal use of color inevitable, but it took a long time before it truly conquered computing. Well into the 1990s, lots of folks who wouldn’t dream of using a black-and-white display with a desktop PC still toted monochrome notebooks. But today, even a $200 netbook has a perfectly respectable color display.
Current whereabouts: You don’t want a monochrome display. But if you did, you wouldn’t have trouble finding one–even Dell still stocks them. They’re still out there in large quantities, being used for electronic cash registers and other unglamorous but important text-based applications. And hey, monochrome is making its own unexpected sort of comeback: My brand-new Kindle 2 e-book reader has an e-ink screen that does sixteen shades of gray, and nothing else.
What it was: An extremely popular line of graphics cards for IBM PCs and compatibles. Hercules first appeared in 1982, the year after the IBM PC was launched, and was known for its high-quality text; it was as synonymous with graphics in the 1980s as Creative’s Sound Blaster was with audio a decade later.
What happened: When fancy color graphics replaced spartan text displays, Hercules continued to be a prominent brand for years, though it never dominated as it did in the early years. But in 1998, it was bought out by competitor ELSA, which then went bankrupt and sold the Hercules brand to French tech company Guillemot. (Researching this article, I’ve come to the conclusion that one sale or merger is usually bad news for a venerable brand, and a second one is usually near-fatal.) Guillemot continued to make cards under the Hercules name for several years. But industry consolidation in the graphics biz was ongoing and brutal, and in 2004 it ceased production of them.
Current whereabouts: The Hercules name lives on, but on an array of tech gadgets that doesn’t include graphics cards: Guillemot uses it for notebooks, Wi-Fi and powerline networking gear, sound cards, speakers, iPod accessories, laptop bags, and more. I wish them luck. But it’s a little as if McDonalds stopped selling burgers to concentrate on tuna salad, Philly cheese steaks, BLTs, and Reubens.