"Whatever Happened to…?"

The odd fates of 25 legendary tech products that are forgotten...but not gone.

By  |  Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 2:30 am

Personal Digital Assistants

PalmPilotWhat they were: The handy-dandy, pocketable gadgets that started as organizers in the early 1990s and blossomed into full-blown computing devices, from the pioneering Apple’s Newton and Casio Zoomer to the enduringly popular Palm PalmPilot and Compaq iPaq lines.

What happened: By 2005 or so, stand-alone PDAs were rendered almost entirely superfluous by their close cousins known as smartphones, which started out big and clunky but eventually did everything a PDA did, plus a lot more. Despite occasional attempts to reinvent the PDA–such as Palm’s ill-fated LifeDrive–almost nobody chose to purchase and carry a phone and a PDA.

Current whereabouts: I’m not sure when any manufacturer last released a new PDA, unless you want to count the iPod Touch as one. (And come to think of it, I can’t think of a strong argument against calling it a PDA.) HP, which acquired the iPaq line when it bought Compaq, still sells four aging PDAs under the name. Palm, meanwhile, maintains an eerie ghost town of a handheld store, which still lists three models but says they’re all sold out. Amazon still has Palm PDAs in stock, though, so they’re not quite dead. Yet.

Packard Bell

Packard BellWhat it was: A PC manufacturer (named after a venerable but defunct radio company) that dominated the retail home PC market in the early 1990s.

What happened: Numerous products in this article fell on hard times in part because of crummy business decisions by their owners, but no other one did itself in so quickly and self-destructively as Packard Bell. Its computers were cheap in part because they were terrible, and backed by subpar customer support. When rivals such as Compaq started selling reasonable computers at reasonable prices through retail stores, Packard Bell started to founder. The decision by NEC to take a controlling interest in Packard Bell in 1995 seemed bizarre even at the time; in 2000, the last Packard Bells disappeared from U.S. store shelves.

Current whereabouts: Lots of places–just not stateside. The brand name never died in Europe, and after a couple of further changes of ownership, it ended up as an arm of Taiwanese PC giant Acer in 2008. It now makes laptops, desktops, displays, MP3 players, and desktops. And if it ever returns to the U.S. market, it’ll be a more impressive comeback than anything Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Reubens has managed.

Amiga

Amiga LogoWhat it was: A remarkable line of personal computers, introduced by home PC pioneer Commodore in 1985, that delivered powerful multimedia and multitasking years  before they became commonplace on PC and Macs.

What happened: Well, you could fill a book with the details–and hey, someone did. Commodore had superb technology, but did a terrible job of developing and marketing it. You could argue that Amiga would have petered out no matter who owned it–even Apple flirted with death as DOS and then Windows overwhelmed other alternatives–but Commodore’s decision-making sure didn’t help. In 1994, it declared bankruptcy and stopped making computers. The Amiga name went on to change hands at least four times over the next decade, sometimes being used on hardware, sometimes being used on software, and sometimes just disappearing.

Current whereabouts: Amiga, Inc, the current owner of the Amiga name, uses it on middleware for set-top boxes as well as games and other applications for cell phones (you can buy an Amiga tip calculator). It also says it’s still working on Amiga OS 4.0, a product so long in the making that it, like Harlan Ellison’s science-fiction anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, is best known for how long it’s been promised without ever appearing. As a former Amiga fanatic, I hope it does ship someday–there’s no way a new Amiga OS wouldn’t be cooler than an Amiga tip calculator.

Floppy disks

Floppy diskWhat they were: A form of removable storage, in 3.5″, 5.25″, and 8″ variants, that started in the 1970s as a high-end alternative to saving programs on audio cassettes, then segued into serving as a handy complement to hard drives.

What happened: Until the mid-1990s, floppies remained essential. But then the Internet came along and provided folks with file downloads and attachments–faster ways to accomplish tasks that had long been the floppy disk’s domain, without floppies’ 1.44MB capacity limitation. (Higher-capacity floppies arrived at about the same time, but never caught on.) Much higher-capacity storage media like Zip disks and recordable DVDs nudged floppies further towards irrelevancy. And USB drives–which provide a gigabyte or more of storage for less than I paid for one 72KB floppy in the 1970s–finished the job.

Current whereabouts: Floppy drives are no longer standard equipment, but they certainly haven’t vanished–in fact, you may have a computer or two around the house that sports one. New 3.5″ drives and media remain readily available, and you might be able to find 5.25″ ones if you hunt a bit. (8″ floppies, I can’t help you with.) Which leaves only one question: Under what circumstances would you opt for floppies over something like a $10 4GB USB drive that holds 2750 times as much data?

Zip Disks

gbnf-zip2What they were: Iomega’s extremely useful, cleverly marketed high-capacity removable disks–introduced back in 1994, when 100MB qualified as high capacity. They were never as pervasive as floppies, but they must be the most popular, most-loved proprietary disk format of all time.

What happened: The same things that happened to floppy disks, only more slowly–and complicated by the malfunction ominously known as the click of death. When cheap CD burners made it easy to store 650MB on a low-cost disc that worked in nearly any computer, Zip started to look less capacious and cost-efficient. And then USB drives–which offered more storage than Zip and required no drive at all–came along. Along the way, Iomega launched new disk formats such as Jaz, PocketZip, and Rev, but they failed to recapture the Zip magic.

Current whereabouts: Iomega seems to be doing fine as a manufacturer of storage products of all sorts. It still sells 250MB and 750MB Zip drives, along with Zip media going all the way back to the original 100MB disks. I confess that I never owned a Zip drive myself–but I’ll still feel a twinge of sadness when they finally go away.

Z80 Microprocessor

Z80 MicroprocessorWhat it was: The 8-bit microprocessor, dating to 1976, that powered an array of early personal computers, including the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Osborne 1, the KayPro II, the Sinclair ZX80, the Exidy Sorcerer, and many others. It was also inside Pac-Man arcade games and ColecoVision game consoles.

What happened: Progress! Among the notable things about 1981’s original IBM PC was its use of a powerful 16-bit CPU, the 8088. In time, 16-bit processors gave way to 32-bit ones, which have been superseded by 64-bit models like Intel’s Core 2 Duo and AMD’s Phenom.

Current whereabouts: Everywhere–but invisibly so. It’s been more than a quarter-century since the chip’s time as a personal-computer CPU ended, but it never stopped finding useful life in industrial equipment, office devices, consumer electronics, and musical instruments. Zilog, the Z80’s inventor, still makes ’em. Anyone want to wager on whether the Core 2 Duo will still be around in 2042?

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33 Comments For This Post

  1. pond Says:

    RE: Netscape, don’t forget SeaMonkey! Currently the default browser on some micro-Linux distributions such as Puppy Linux. nVue and its newer derivative Kompozer carry on the Netscape composer module.

    Is Thunderbird based on the Mail & News module of Netscape, or is it all-brand new?

  2. downdb Says:

    I routinely see Okidata dot-matrix printers in places like hardware stores, mechanics’ shops, etc. Mock them if you want (“Nobody ever thinks about dot-matrix printers anymore”), but when it comes to sturdiness and reliability, they beat the crap out of *any* desktop inkjet/laser printer on the market. Frankly, they’re more dependable than many thousand-dollar network printers as well.

  3. Hemant Says:

    Juno, the email service, deserves a mention too!

  4. dragunkat Says:

    Floppy drives are still here because there’s still a need for the backwards compatibility, and because you can’t install 3rd party drivers (such as raid controller drivers) on windows xp/windows server 2003 without a floppy. Vista and 7 have support for usb/dvd/cd though.

  5. menotbug Says:

    The stable release of AmigaOS 4.0 was released in late 2006, 4.1 went on sale in September 2008
    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AmigaOS_4 )

  6. DaveinOlyWA Says:

    WOW!!! what a trip down memory lane.

  7. ayharano Says:

    RE: Dot-Matrix Printers
    I’m pretty sure that here in Brazil, the government requires dot-matrix printers to print invoices – because of the needle pressing like feature in order to avoid tax fraud. I don’t know if the government doesn’t think that deskjet nor laserjet printer are safe, but that’s the fact.

  8. Kathie Says:

    How about Visa-Calc? It was the first spread sheet program that I had to learn.

  9. Patrick Says:

    The decline of Hayes modems began with Microcom’s release of MNP, its error-correcting protocol for 2400 bps modems. They created an extended version of the Hayes AT command set, over which Hayes lost a costly lawsuit. It took Hayes years to finally produce error-correcting modems, but by then it was too late. US Robotics, Zoom and others dominated the dial-up modem business with speeds of 9600 bps and beyond.

  10. Dan Z Says:

    I hate websites that break up a story into parts simply so they can increase the click count. So when I reach that point, I click “Stumble!”

    -dan z-

  11. aep528 Says:

    You neglect to mention that Iomega was purchased by storage giant EMC, so maybe your one-sale rule isn’t always true.

  12. Steven Fisher Says:

    I think Mini disc has probably found its niche, just like betamax did.

  13. ctsbc Says:

    There is an interesting history about dBase and Ashton-Tate that I don’t know if it is true. They say that George Tate bought Vulcan, a database program developed by Cecil Wayne Ratliff at JPL in Pasadena around 1978, and renamed it as dBase II. dBase I and Ashton never existed, they were creations of George Tate.

    One of the most beautiful and useful programs I used in the early days was Borland SideKick (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SideKick). Remeber it?

  14. Michael Wexler Says:

    These are truly great picks. But I’m surprised you didn’t mention “You Don’t Know Jack” also by Berkeley Systems. This was a pretty big hit as well, spawning books, TV shows, hand helds, the works.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Don't_Know_Jack

    Admittedly, After Dark was a bigger hit, but I still remember learning how to be snarky before the word became cool… thanks to Jack.

  15. ralphg Says:

    PageMaker runs on Vista and Windows 7. I still use it, because it has a feature that competitors lack: the ability to place graphics inline with text, like a text character.

  16. Andrew M Says:

    RE: WebVan. People in the NY metro area are obsessed with WebVan’s true heir: FreshDirect. It’s everything WebVan promised to be, and when I lived and worked in Manhattan I couldn’t live without it. WebVan lives, just not in suburbia.

  17. Geoff Says:

    Radio had high hopes for MiniDisc, as a replacement for cassette recorders in the field (i.e. used by reporters.) I recall issues with battery life, durability, connectors, and mechanical noises occasionally showing up on tracks. After a couple of years, Marantz came out with a portable solid-state digital recorder, and it’s now basically the standard.

  18. Scottgfx Says:

    The first “Screen Saver” I think may have been the Atari 2600 and 400/800 home computer’s “Attract Mode”.

    After a preset amount of time, the chipset would start randomly switching around the palette of the screen, varying the brightness and hue.

    The main architect of the Atari chipsets was Jay Miner, who would go on to lead the design team of the Amiga.

  19. Toby Champion Says:

    Fascinating article. The acronym NLQ (Near Letter Quality) brought back warm fuzzy feelings. But most people are content to “get their foodstuffs the old fashioned way” by using supermarkets? I think actually the “old fashioned way” would be small shops… barter… foraging.

  20. Don McArthur Says:

    Rbase! A database competitor to Dbase, and very powerful, too. But painful – I remember (around 1987) typing in 250+ character sql statements into its command line interface and being presented with:

    *Syntax error*

    And the rest was up to you. Hahahaha…

  21. Paul Smith Says:

    If you’re going to talk about the history and fate After Dark, you have to note that the two founders of Berkeley Systems were the ones who posted the initial petition that created MoveOn.org in 1998.

  22. Tom Storm Says:

    Thanks for this refresher on obsolesence. I can finally lay to rest my technophobic anxiety over the expensive software and hardware I have owned since buying my first computer – circa 1983. BROTHER thermal printer; (JUNK) KAYPRO portable – weighed 35-40 lbs. (UNDERPOWERED/OVERPRICED) 3.5 floppies (and a drive!) (HOPELESSLY INADEQUATE) I also still have portable and fixed Mini-disc recorder/players.(EXQUISITE ENGINEERING) – headed for the defunct no museum I guess….still use it. Also have the heavy duty 4 track console for recording. My Zip/Jaz drive still works!
    I am headed into retro now – my two thousand LP vinyl collection deserves digital preservation – but also a turntable so I can hear the analogue warmth.
    Apple Newton? I got one stored in a box somewhere.
    SONY Cleo – lost all data when the power ran out. what a dog. Anyway – enough. I am reverting to analogue/paper & ink.

    Please bring back coin operated street corner phones. I don’t need to be that accessible.

  23. William Says:

    Great memories!! Thanks for a great lead-in to the weekend. Interesting to see how many companies Microsoft simply buried, most of the time through tactics that are illegal (bundling for free).

    What about Kaypro and the original Compaq? And what was that portable with the itty bitty screen called again?

  24. Nancy-NY Says:

    This list brought back memories. Had to chuckle though, at the first item — dot matrix printers. While not used for word processing, they are still widely in use (as you and others mentioned) for their impact capabilities. I deal with them almost daily in a tech support capacity.

    My first pc was an IBM PS/2 which came preloaded with Windows ver 1. (Horrible!) Still have it in a closet along with a bunch of vintage hardware and software. (Anyone interested? LOL) And to really date myself, I was an early user of Prodigy.com. ID was rrrs42a.

    Enjoyed reading your list!

  25. Will Fastie Says:

    Sony’s MiniDisc was a great technology that would have really taken off had it not been for Sony’s nutty stance on DRM from the gitgo. It was only in the past two years or so that it was possible to transfer a recording made by the device to a computer – Sony was worried that any track on the disc, including commercial music, would be copied.

    But remember the timing here. Had Sony also made a floppy drive replacement based on this technology, it would not have been able to build enough. This was well before flash memory and while we were still struggling with the 100MB Zip drive. The original MD would have held about 180MB of data, been re-writable for much longer than CD-RWs (which were hideously expensive at the time), and been smaller than the old 3.5″ floppy. Then the 1GB Hi-MD would have given the technology a great mid-life kick.

    Now that Sony has acknowledged that a recording made by me actually belongs to me and lets me upload it from the device, it’s too late. At this instant in time, the cost per GB of flash memory is the same as for Hi-MD discs. Why buy a mechanical media when a solid-state media costs the same and is going down?

    Nonetheless, it is still hard to find an economical recording device with good recording quality. With its high price, the last of the MD line from Sony doesn’t quality. I’ll keep using my 8-year old model until it dies.

    MD was a great technology sadly ruined by the stupidity of its maker.

  26. Benj Edwards Says:

    Excellent work, Harry. I love it.

  27. Radd Says:

    you didn’t mention EXCITE

    this was as popular as yahoo in the early days, but slowly lost its shine

  28. Backlin Says:

    Believe it or not, I still use a VCR with VCRplus, and it works great! Of course, now I record TV shows in high-def, all digital, over-the-air; but it’s always great to put in a VHS, press play, and have the timestamp that was written on the tape come up with the date and time I recorded it, what channel it was on (it even marked the A/V inputs), and the custom-typed description (I typed it with the remote, very frustrating). All the public TV stations around my area still broadcast the time also.

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