"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

Sites, Services, and Stores

AltaVista

gbnf-altavistaWhat it was: A research project at legendary computer company Digital Equipment Corporation that became the first widely popular Web search engine soon after its launch in December, 1995.

What happened: Digital was a strange parent for a search engine, but it did a great job with AltaVista. In 1998, however, it was acquired by Compaq–also a strange parent for a search engine–which tried to turn AltaVista from a search specialist into a Yahoo-like portal. In 2000, Compaq sold it to dot-com investment firm CMGI, which later sold it to Overture Services (the former GoTo.com). In 2003, Overture itself was acquired by Yahoo. By then, AltaVista had lost most of its personality and its users–and Google had grown into a behemoth by being really good at the stuff that AltaVista had pioneered before there was a Google.

Current whereabouts: There’s still an AltaVista.com, but its traffic is minimal and it seems to be nothing more than a reskinned doppelganger of part of Yahoo (compare this AltaVista query to this Yahoo one). The site that started as a great piece of technology from one of the world’s great technology companies is now just a name. Sniff.

WebVan

WebVanWhat it was: A grocery-delivery dot-com service that was famous, at first, for the ambition of its plans, the enormity of their expense, and the impressive resumes of its management team. It was also pretty darn beloved by more than a few folks I know, who loved the quality of its service.

What happened: Spending more than a billion dollars to build cutting-edge warehouses turned out to an investment that couldn’t possibly pay off quickly enough. After a string of other questionable business decisions (when its CEO was ousted, his golden parachute included a $375,000 payment–annually, for life) WebVan declared bankruptcy in 2001.

Current whereabouts: I didn’t realize until I began work on this story that WebVan.com still sells groceries–but only nonperishable ones–as an outpost of the Amazon.com empire. Strangely, Amazon has another site, Amazon Fresh, which specializes in delivering stuff that is perishable. Meanwhile, most Americans seem content to get their foodstuffs the old fashioned way, by trudging the aisles of a supermarket with a cart.

CompuServe

CompuServeWhat it was: The first major consumer online service. Starting in 1979, it offered message boards, news and information, e-commerce, and other Web-like features–long before there was a Web, and even before thee was an AOL.

What happened: Well, the rise of AOL in the early 1990s left CompuServe as the second-largest online service, which was probably a lot less fun than being the biggest. Shortly thereafter, CompuServe had to deal with the Internet. Like other proprietary services, it became a not-very-satisfying not-quite-an-ISP. And as consumers flooded the Web, CompuServe’s once-bustling message boards started to feel deserted. In 1997, AOL bought CompuServe, and while CompuServe’s robust international network helped bolster AOL’s infrastructure, the CompuServe community dwindled away.

Current whereabouts: Like Netscape, CompuServe became a nameplate that AOL attaches to slightly embarrassing projects. It’s now a bargain-priced ISP and a half-hearted portal site; boilerplate copy calls CompuServe a “key brand” and touts CompuServe 7.0 as “the newest version” without mentioning that it’s eight years old. (Weirdly, CompuServe’s home page also carries the logo of Wow, a faux-AOL that the company shuttered within months of its 1996 release–I can’t believe that anyone misses it or is looking for it.) For those of us who were CompuServe users back when its user IDs consisted of lots of digits and a mysterious comma, it’s a depressing fate.

Prodigy

ProdigyWhat it was: A joint venture of Sears Roebuck and IBM that launched an extremely consumery online service in 1990–a more mainstream alternative to CompuServe before AOL became a phenomenon. Geeks sneered at it (some called it “Stodigy”), but it managed to sign up a sizable number of users in an era when the typical American had ever laid eyes on a modem.

What happened: Within a few years of Prodigy’s debut, the Internet made proprietary services like it (and CompuServe, and Delphi, and GEnie, and, eventually, AOL) look like antiques. Prodigy started adding Internet features, and in 1997 it relaunched itself as a full-blown ISP. (It also shut down the original Prodigy service rather than fixing its Y2K bugs.) It did okay as an ISP, at least for awhile–in 1998, it was the country’s fourth largest one. But in 2001, SBC (now AT&T) bought Prodigy and retired the brand name.

Current whereabouts: Down south! In Mexico, Telmex, the dominant telecommunications company, owns the Prodigy name and still uses it. Here it is on a video site, and on a portal that’s cobranded with MSN (!). And don’t hold me to this, but I suspect that there are still some stateside SBC customers who retain Prodigy.net e-mail addresses–just as I maintained a Mindspring one for years after that ISP was acquired by EarthLink.

VCR Plus+

VCR PlusWhat it was: Remember all those jokes about VCRs that permanently flashed 12:00? Starting in the early 1990s, the redundantly-named VCR Plus+ (which was built into VCRs and available as an add-on in the form of a special remote control) simplified programming a video recorder by letting you punch in codes that appeared in TV listings in newspapers and TV Guide. (In fact, VCR Plus+ inventor Gemstar Development bought TV Guide in 1999 for $9.7 billion.)

What happened: VCR Plus+’s fortunes were dependent on the fortunes of the VCR. As the 1990s wore on, consumers spent less time futzing with recording tapes at all, and more time renting and buying tapes–and, eventually, renting and buying DVDs. By the end of the decade, TiVo and ReplayTV allowed TV fans to record hours of shows without dealing with tapes at all. Meanwhile, Gemstar founder Henry Yuen was fired after an accounting scandal–and then went missing.

Current whereabouts: VCR Plus+ is now owned by Macrovision, a company more famous for technologies that prevent people from recording entertainment than ones that help them do so. The codes are available on TVGuide.com and VCRPlus.com, and in newspaper TV listings. (Of course, in an era of 500 channels and onscreen grides, newspaper TV listings are event more anachronistic than newspapers in general.) But you know what? I’m not sure whether anyone’s still making VCRs with VCRPlus+.

Circuit City

Circuit City

What it was: A chain of consumer-electronics superstores with roots that went back to 1949. For a time in the 1990s, it was the most high-profile technology merchant in America.

What happened: Two words: “Best” and “Buy.” Plus misguided decisions like laying off experienced salespeople and replacing them with cheaper clueless newbies. Not to mention the fact that almost every major electronics retailer eventually falls on hard times and liquidates itself–it seems to go with the territory.

Current whereabouts: Up north! In the U.S., Circuit City is now a nationwide chain of large, empty storefronts, but its Canadian subsidiary, The Source by Circuit City, remains a 750-store powerhouse. (Confusingly–at least for us yanks–the chain is the former RadioShack Canada.) Earlier this month, Bell Canada agreed to buy The Source; it says it’ll keep the name, but I’m guessing it wasn’t referring to the “by Circuit City” part. But even if it deletes it, Circuit City may not be utterly dead: The home page for its currently-closed site says that it hopes to restore some sort of online presence.

Egghead Software

EggheadWhat it was: A nationwide chain of software stores with an odd name and an even odder mascot (Professor Egghead, an Albert Einstein-lookalike anthropomorphic egg–or was he a normal human cursed to live his life with an egg for a noggin?).

What happened: Like most tech retailers, Egghead eventually fell on hard times; in 1998, it shuttered its stores and went online only. In 2001 it declared bankruptcy and closed the site, too (bad publicity after hackers broke into its customer database apparently speeded its demise).

Current whereabouts: Even after the business collapsed, the Egghead name was worth something–$6.1 million, to be exact, which is what Amazon.com paid for it in 2001. The e-tailing giant continues to sell software at Egghead.com. It’s basically the software section of Amazon’s own site, but it does sport an Egghead logo. Just in case there are any loyal customers out there who aren’t aware that Egghead folded eight years ago. Sadly, the Professor is nowhere to be seen.

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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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  33. Darcy Clarkin Says:

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