“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

Whatever Happened To?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.

Hardware Holdouts
More Hardware Holdouts
Software Survivors
Sites, Services, and Stores

Hardware Holdouts

Dot-Matrix Printers

Oki Dot-Matrix PrinterWhat 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.

Hayes Modems

Hayes Microcomputer ProductsWhat 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.

MiniDisc

MiniDisc LogoWhat 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.

Monochrome Displays

Monochrome MonitorWhat 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.

Hercules

HerculesWhat 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.

1 2 3 4  NEXT PAGE»


49 Comments


Read more: , , , , , , ,

38 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.

  29. jeremy Says:

    LHkctV http://dhY3n0fjvTtj48mG9sFnCv.com

  30. Pshlwrqj Says:

    Best Site Good Work Dorki Info Loli
    pqui Dorki Baby
    %PP Lolitas Rompl
    ldvao Small Baby Dorki Porn
    bvgnax Dorki Pics
    wbiea Rompl Bbs Porno
    005195 Dorki
    466246 Rompl Lolitas
    8-OOO Rompl
    =-)) Bbs Dorki Lolita Site
    ytvgl Dorki Bbs
    47370 Cp Loli Pedo Preteen Dorki
    wbwxfq Loli Dorki Pthc
    >:DD Baby Rompl
    132757 Preteen Sex Rompl
    uiusl Small Dorki Porn
    bubv Loli Dorki Rape
    :))) Rompl Pedo
    >:-DD Dorki Lolita Pic
    fzb Lolita Dorki Rompl
    :-P

  31. Ldstfgkt Says:

    I enjoy travelling Legal Bikini Preteens
    8PP Hot Lesbian Preteens
    pbaxs Preteen 10yo Oral
    ybegiw Preteen Private Collection
    05719 Model Nude Preteenie
    :[[[ Preteen Gilgs Nude
    84660 Preteen X Stories
    64351 Preteen Girls Anatomy
    7710 Preteen Wrestling Girls
    738551 Preteennude Loitas Tgp
    gkmk Young Preteen Nodels
    490 Forum Preteen Model
    52550 Preteenz Posing Nude
    rvskgs Bikini Preteen Com
    jpa Preteen Pirate Ls
    7947 Preteen Euro Models
    gtyirx Young Toplist Preteens
    >:-)) Young Nubile Preteens
    xuvqnh Galleries Preteen Supermodels
    =OOO Dream Preteen Girls
    159228

  32. Rxvfffzm Says:

    What do you want to do when you’ve finished? Preteen Amateur Nn
    cphnk Preteen Flatchest Models
    eajvs Preteen Paradise Com
    :-(( Models Preteen Videos
    752815 Japaness Preteen Models
    363969 Preteen Bikini Modellewis
    0106 Joung Models Preteen
    789 Real Topless Preteens
    bli Preteen Naturist Photos
    mvcxs Preteens Hot Picture
    8(( Bbs Pictures Preteen
    1758 Preteen Clothing Store
    :-DDD Preteens Modeling Japan
    964 Preteen Girls Ass
    >:PPP Preteen Nonude Glam
    13683 Nudity Preteen Law
    >:((( Preteen Preteen Dorki
    =-PPP Hot Preteen Virgins
    261 Preteen Nu8de Magazines
    =O Preteen No Naked
    >:-]]]

  33. Gxtlemjc Says:

    I can’t stand football Nn Lolitas Pics
    567754 Nn Preteen Model Pics
    vcitp Nn Child Model
    pxwqu Naked Little Girls Nn
    95385 Nn Models Preteen
    ytfduu Teen Boy Nn Russian Models
    899480 Nn Young Panty Pics
    :DDD Lolli Preteen Models Nn
    rvafdx Models Nn
    ajejj Nude Little Girls Nn
    1164 Nn Galleries
    8( Preteen Girls Nn
    nlzlpy Nn Teen Shower
    075 Nn Teen Model Links
    uhawi Preteen Nn Magazine
    485368 Top 100 Nn Teen Model Galleries
    adodar Young Models Nn
    7785 Nn Pre Teen Models
    %-))) New Nn Preteen Models
    ukzmtp Young Teen Nn
    30933

  34. Owmvedga Says:

    How long have you lived here? morgan fairchild sex iqdc

  35. Hpnmzdaq Says:

    History Teen Model Swimwear
    paet

  36. fool circle movie Says:

    This definitely makes perfect sense to me

  37. reservation Says:

    First class writing

  38. Darcy Clarkin Says:

    This is a good article. I only became aware of this stuff after reading your post. Good write-up!

11 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. iWeb Blog » Nouvelles Techno iWeb: Zend, Google, publicités Says:

    [...] La fin de 25 produits techno légendaire, sur Technologizer [...]

  2. iWeb Blog » iWeb Tech News Highlights: Tech History, Zend, Advertising Says:

    [...] The odd fate of 25 legendary tech products and services, on Technologizer [...]

  3. [TechBlogWatch] Best of Blogs für den 26.03.2009 | TechFieber | Hot Gadgets. Smart TechNews. Says:

    [...] “Whatever Happened to…? The odd fates of 25 legendary tech products [...]

  4. Fresh From Twitter | Kent Beatty dot Com Says:

    [...] @Retweetist @KIYO_KIYO @AidanSansom @ChristopfarnellThe odd fates of 25 legendary tech products, http://bit.ly/drA0, I’ve owned or used all of theseFrom Erin’s Frugal Living: [...]

  5. links for 2009-03-26 | Seth Goldstein Online Says:

    [...] “Whatever Happened to…?” | Technologizer 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. (tags: technology history hardware geek products software computers computing nostalgia) [...]

  6. Top Posts « WordPress.com Says:

    [...] “Whatever Happened to…?” Old computer products, like old soldiers, never die. They stay on the market–even though they haven’t been [...] [...]

  7. Interesting Reading… - The Blogs at HowStuffWorks Says:

    [...] “Whatever Happened to…?” – “The odd fates of 25 legendary tech products that are forgotten…but not gone…” [...]

  8. “Whatever Happened to…?” | Harry McCracken | Voices | AllThingsD Says:

    [...] Read the rest of this post Print all_things_di220:http://voices.allthingsd.com/20090327/%e2%80%9cwhatever-happened-to%e2%80%a6%e2%80%9d/?reflink=ATD_yahoo_buzz Sharevar obj = SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: ““Whatever Happened to…?””, url: “http://voices.allthingsd.com/20090327/%e2%80%9cwhatever-happened-to%e2%80%a6%e2%80%9d/” },{button:false});var elem = document.getElementById(“share-9896-0.17209200 1238137479″);obj.attachButton(elem); Comment Tagged: Internet, Voices, digital, hardware, media, software, “Whatever Became of…?”, AOL, blockbusters, hardware, Harry McCracken, Richard Lamparski, software, subscribers, Technologizer, technology, WordPerfect | permalink Sphere.Inline.search(“”, “http://voices.allthingsd.com/20090327/%e2%80%9cwhatever-happened-to%e2%80%a6%e2%80%9d/”); [...]

  9. Great article I came across about old tech still being used today | Where does this wire go? Says:

    [...] http://technologizer.com/2009/03/26/whatever-happened-to/ [...]

  10. Wat gebeurde er met… | Computertaal Says:

    [...] 25 grote technologieën stonden op en zijn ondertussen weer (bijna) vergeten. We denken daarbij aan dot matrixprinters (wat zijn dat ook alwaar?) Minidiscs en Monochrome monitoren, bijvoorbeeld. Sommigen daarvan zijn niet kapot te krijgen. Anderen… Wel, die hebben het tijdelijke al lang voor het eeuwige verwisseld. [...]

  11. Netscape Founder Backs Next-Gen Browser (PC World) : Information Technology – You ! Says:

    [...] is widely credited as the browser that helped popularize the Web during the early to mid-90s. In response to Netscape's popularity, Microsoft developed Internet [...]