By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:07 am
Quick, what’s the most admired technology brand? Maybe you answered Apple. Or Google. Or maybe even Microsoft. I’m reasonably certain, however, that none of the brands you’re about to read about sprung to mind. They’re all damaged goods–severely damaged goods in most cases.
No brand is guaranteed eternal health. (The two most powerful tech trademarks of the mid-1980s were arguably Compaq and Lotus; both are still around, but in greatly diminished form.) The brands in this story haven’t just lost a little of their luster. Most were once among the most respected names in tech, but ran into financial hardship and got sold (often repeatedly) to new owners who were usually mostly interested in strip-mining whatever goodwill the brands retained with the American public.
If you ever loved any of the names in this article–and chances are that you once had a high opinion of at least a few of them–prepare to feel a tad glum.
What it was: Jack Tramiel’s groundbreaking computer company. In the 1970s and 1980s, it released one of the first PCs (the PET 2001), the best-selling PC of all time (the Commodore 64), and (after Tramiel left) one of the best PCs ever (the Amiga). But post-Tramiel management eventually ran the company into the ground. It went belly-up in 1994.
What it became: Commdore’s golden age may have been a quarter century ago, but the name remains recognizable enough that multiple companies have acquired it with giddy visions of using it to launch new product lines. Germany’s ESCOM and the Netherlands’ Tulip both did so; both quickly gave up. Most recently, a company called Commodore Gaming revived the nameplate yet again for a line of high-end Windows desktops, but its current site is almost entirely devoted to old Commdore 64 games which are now playable on the Wii. Bottom line: The Commodore line of computers has now died at least four times.
And yes, I did consider giving Commodore’s still-extant Amiga brand its own slot on this list–but I’m too confused by its current status. Maybe you can explain it to me?
What it was: I’m too young to have ever built a Heathkit during their glory days, but I certainly remember wanting to put one together. There was a time when there was no better way to establish your geek cred than to assemble a Heathkit radio, TV, stereo system, or other piece of electronic gadgetry–and doing it yourself saved you money, too. (Among the company’s fans: Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who assembled a hundred Heathkits, and the distinguished literary critic Hugh Kenner.)
When the personal computer revolution came along, Heathkit became a significant manufacturer of early PCs, too, leading to its 1979 purchase by Zenith. But increasingly sophisticated, miniaturized electronics made it tough to save money by assembling a kit rather than buying a ready-made item. In 1992, Heathkit stopped selling kits.
What it became: Heathkit, which like many of the companies in this story has gone through repeated changes in ownership, is still around. Its current name is Heathkit Educational Systems, and it sells training materials for the PC, telecommunications, and life sciences industries. The vestigial “kit” in its name serves as a reminder that it’s quite literally not the Heathkit it used to be.
What it was: Incorporated in 1907, Bell & Howell was a major manufacturer of imaging equipment (from Charlie Chaplin’s movie camera to the slide projector at your junior high) as well as microfilm products. This later business eventually led to it getting into the online services business. Even if you never bought any of its products, the name rang a bell, and suggested sturdy, reliable quality.
What it became: The information-services part of B&H is now a perfectly respectable company called ProQuest. And Kodak owns Böwe Bell & Howell, which makes scanners. But the once-great brand name has otherwise been turned over to a licensing company that lets third parties slap it on pretty much everything except for the products it was once associated with. You can buy “Bell + Howell” laptop bags, razors, and headphones, as well as a pseudo-hearing aid hawked on late-night TV and a pest-repellent device. It’s undignified, I tell you.
What it was: With origins dating to 1886, Westinghouse was one of the greatest American conglomerates–Pepsi to General Electric’s Coke. Among its dizzying array of businesses: electrical equipment, nuclear power plant equipment, aircraft engines, air conditioning, elevators, refrigerators and other appliances, gas turbines, locomotives, and robots. In 1995, however, it bought CBS, changed its name to CBS Corporation, and began to sell off its non-broadcasting businesses.
What it became: Bits and pieces of Westinghouse still exist–if you need to build a nuclear plant, you might want to give it a call, and there are still White-Westinghouse appliances. But Westinghouse is now primarily a shell company that licenses its name out to other manufacturers who want a familiar-sounding nameplate for their products. You can buy Westinghouse TVs and monitors, doorbells, light bulbs, and photo frames. But there is no real “Westinghouse”–the once-mighty behemoth of American commerce is now just a logo for rent.
What it was: AltaVista was the first blockbuster search engine– a remarkable piece of technology that began as a Digital Equipment Corporation research project and became the Google of its era. In fact, when Google came along, the easiest way to explain it was to say that it was like AltaVista, only better.
What it became: When brands get sold, they usually get damaged in the process. AltaVista had five owners in five years: Digital (1995-1998), Compaq (1998-1999), CMGI (1999-2003), Overture (2003), and Yahoo (2003-present). It grew less relevant with each change of hands; if you weren’t aware it’s still with us today, I’m not surprised. But here it is.
The About AltaVista page boasts that it’s “a leading provider of search services and technology” and that it “continues to advance Internet search with new technologies and features designed to improve the search experience for consumers.” As far as I can tell, though, AltaVista results are slightly rehashed variants of what Yahoo gives you for the same queries. Using it is like visiting an old friend who’s been lobotomized.
What it was: A telephone service company founded by the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, in 1875. It went on to become synonymous with phones and phone service in the United States–and was broken up into a long-distance company and separate “Baby Bell” local-service companies as the result of a 1982 agreement after it was sued under U.S. antitrust law.
What it became: AT&T is the current name of the former SBC, the telecommunications giant which ended up owning half of the Baby Bells. It adopted the brand when it acquired AT&T in 2005. I thought it was an odd name change at the time, since the name AT&T brings to mind associations of the telephone’s old, monopolistic, land-line past, not its high-speed wireless future. The name may be venerable, but it doesn’t evoke warm and fuzzy feelings: I can’t prove it, but my gut tells me that the company’s current subpar reputation–among iPhone owners, at least–is at least slightly crummier than it would have been if it had kept the SBC moniker.
But AT&T is also on this list–despite still being attached to one of the largest and most successful companies in America–because its current use underscores the completely ephemeral nature of branding in the telecommunications industry. “AT&T” may have been around as a name for 135 years, but it’s nothing more than three letters and an ampersand. That was proven when hundreds of AT&T Wireless stores expensively rebranded themselves as Cingular stores when Cingular bought AT&T’s wireless arm…and then expensively re-rebranded themselves as AT&T less than three years later.
Then there’s the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark. It’s sported three different names in the past six years: Pacific Bell Park, SBC Park, and now AT&T Park. One more merger, and it may end up as Verizon Park, Comcast Park, or Google Park.