"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

Software Survivors


dBase IV

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.


Netscape LogoWhat it was: The browser (formally known as Netscape Navigator for most of its life) and company which, beginning in 1994, jump-started both the Web and the Internet economy.

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?


DOSWhat it was: The operating system that powered the original 1981 IBM PC. And then a bunch of clones of the original IBM PC. And then the vast majority of the personal computers on the planet.

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?

Lotus 1-2-3

Lotus 1-2-3What 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.


Adobe PageMakerWhat 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.

After Dark

After DarkWhat 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.

Harvard Graphics

Harvard GraphicsWhat 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.



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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.


    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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