By Harry McCracken | Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 2:30 am
What it was: The dominant PC database software from almost the moment it first appeared in 1980, and one of the best-known pieces of productivity software, period; the flagship product of Ashton-Tate back when that company was arguably a better-known name in software than Microsoft.
What happened: dBASE IV, mostly. That 1988 upgrade was late and buggy, and Ashton-Tate didn’t move fast enough to fix it, ticking off the loyal developers who had made dBASE a standard. The company also spent a lot of time suing competitors, which is never as productive an investment of time and money as improving one’s own products. In 1991, Borland bought Ashton-Tate for $439 million, and acquired dBASE IV’s bad luck along with it–neither Borland nor dBASE fared well in subsequent years. And in 1992, Microsoft launched Access, a database that might have slaughtered dBASE no matter what. But dBASE was on the mat before Access ever entered the ring.
Current whereabouts: In 1999, dBASE was sold again, and its new owner, DataBased Intelligence, continues to sell it to this day. (It’s now called dBASE Plus, as if dBASE IV had never existed.) The company’s newsgroups are surprisingly active, showing that real people are still using dBASE to do real work. Not bad for a product that most of us wrote off as a goner early in the first Clinton administration.
What happened: Hoo boy. Microsoft, after not even bundling a browser with Windows 95 at first, decided to crush Netscape–which it did by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, giving it away for free, and, eventually, making it pretty good. (Along the way, a certain governmental agency expressed its displeasure with some of the company’s anti-Netscape tactics.) Netscape, meanwhile, went off on tangents such as developing a communications suite that didn’t amount to much and enterprise software which it eventually sold to Sun. The company sold out to AOL in 1998; AOL had so little interest in the browser it bought that it continued to distribute IE as its primary one. An ever-shrinking user base did continue to get new versions of Netscape, but in December, 2007 AOL announced that it was pulling the plug.
Current whereabouts: If you’re an optimist, you’ll focus on one wonderful fact: Firefox, which is based on Mozilla code that originated as an open-source version of Netscape, is a huge success. The Netscape name, however, is profoundly shopworn. In recent years, AOL has slapped it on a budget ISP (which still exists but doesn’t seem to be signing up new customers) and an imitation of Digg (now known as Propeller). Today. it’s mostly just a slight variant on the AOL.com home page with the Netscape logo repeated endlessly in the background. But did I mention that Firefox is doing great?
What happened: Simplistic impulse answer: When Windows 9, the first version of Windows that didn’t require DOS to run, came along, it rendered DOS obsolete. (Eventually–there were certainly people who happily ran DOS and DOS applications for several years after Win 95 debuted.) More thoughtful answer: The moment that the Mac brought graphical-user interfaces into the mainstream in 1985, it was the beginning of the end of the drab, relentlessly text-based DOS.
Current whereabouts: DOS refuses to die. It seems to me that I still see it in use at small independent businesses such as antique stores and dry cleaners–the kind of outfits that don’t bother to change something that still works, even if it’s a decade or two out of fashion. It’s the inspiration for FreeDOS, an open-source project with a thriving community. And Microsoft still offers MS-DOS 6.22 for download to customers who subscribe to various volume-licensing plans. Why would the company bother if there weren’t people who still needed it?
What it was: The world’s most popular spreadsheet–the first killer app for the IBM PC, and the spreadsheet that replaced the original killer app, VisiCalc. It was also the flagship program in Lotus’s SmartSuite, an office bundle which provided Microsoft Office with real competition in the mid-1990s.
What happened: A variant on the fates that befell WordPerfect, Harvard Graphics, and other major DOS productivity apps. Lotus thought that IBM’s OS/2 would replace DOS, so it focused its energies on that OS, then had to play catch-up when OS/2 went nowhere and Windows caught on like crazy. Starting in the 1990s, it turned its attention to its Notes collaboration platform, and seemed less and less interested in desktop applications, period–especially after the company was bought by IBM in 1995. That gave Microsoft plenty of opportunity to make Excel competitive with 1-2-3 and leverage its place in the Microsoft Office suite. By the late 1990s, 1-2-3 was a has-been; Lotus last upgraded it in 2002.
Current whereabouts: IBM still sells that 2002 version of 1-2-3, which it cheerfully calls “the latest release.” For $313, it throws in the other SmartSuite apps “as a bonus.” But it’s so disinterested in the product that made Lotus a software giant that when it recently introduced a new suite that includes a spreadsheet, it named it after a different old Lotus package–Symphony.
What it was: Aldus’s groundbreaking desktop publishing application, launched in 1985. Along with Apple’s Macintosh and LaserWriter laser printer, it made it possible for mere mortals to create professional-looking documents (as well as eyeball-searing monstrosities) for the first time.
What happened: PageMaker’s decline was slow and multifaceted. As word processors gained respectable graphics capabilities, there was less need for it among casual users, and Quark XPress offered more sophisticated tools for professionals. Adobe, which had acquired Aldus in 1994, lost interest in PageMaker and built its own publishing app, InDesign, from the ground up. In 2004, it announced that it would cease further development of PageMaker.
Current whereabouts: Over at Adobe’s Web site, it’s still selling PageMaker 7.0, which dates to 2002. The price: $499. It touts it as “the ideal page layout program for business, education, and small- and home-office professionals who want to create high-quality publications such as brochures and newsletters.” Which is a damned odd claim to make about a program that’s incompatible with all current Macs (it’s an OS 9 application) and Windows Vista. Dig deeper, and you’ll find Adobe’s real opinion of PageMaker, which is–surprise!–that you should use InDesign instead.
What it was: Berkeley Systems’ screensaver for Macs and PCs, introduced in 1989 and most famous for its iconic flying toasters. Ask anyone to mention a specific screensaver, and the odds are 99.99999% that this is the one they’ll mention. It spawned multiple sequels and spinoffs such as neckties and boxer shorts.
What happened: I’m not sure if I know, exactly, but I suspect the inclusion of fancy screensavers in the Mac’s OS and Windows and the availability of gazillions of free ones didn’t help the market for commercial screensavers. (I still treasure my autographed copy of Berkeley Breathed’s Opus n’ Bill screensaver, though–it includes a scene in which Bill the Cat shoots down flying toasters, which prompted a lawsuit.) Also, the theory that you needed a screensaver to prevent your monitor from burning in turned out to be hooey. Anyhow, Berkeley Systems’ last After Dark outing was something called After Dark Games, in 1998; it wasn’t even a screensaver.
Current whereabouts: Berkeley Systems is no more, but Infinisys, a Japanese company, sells a modern OS X version of After Dark. But not too modern: It doesn’t work on Intel Macs.
What it was: The first popular presentation-graphics program, released back in 1986 when many of the slides it produced really did end up as slides. For years, it was the flagship product of Software Publishing Corporation, which was forced to run disclaimers explaining that the product had nothing to do with the university of the same name.
What happened: Harvard Graphics was far better than PowerPoint for a long time. Little by little, though, PowerPoint narrowed the gap. In the 1990s, being a only little better than a Microsoft application was a recipe for disaster–especially if your product was a stand-alone application that competed against one that was part of Microsoft Office. In 1994, SPC laid off half its staff; in 1996, it merged with Allegro New Media; in 1998, it released Harvard Graphics 98, its last major upgrade.
Current whereabouts: In 2001, British graphics software developer Serif acquired Harvard Graphics–cheaply, I’ll bet–and has kept it kept alive. But it’s on life support: Harvard Graphics 98 is still for sale, along with a few other variants. There’s no mention of when any of them last got an upgrade, but the fact that Windows Vista isn’t mentioned in their hardware requirements isn’t a great sign. Nor is the the lack of any reference to the Harvard line in the list of products on Serif’s own site.