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 user 2009-04-08 at 10:58:00 am Views: 125
  • #22298
    Where Are They Now? 25 Computer Products That Refuse to Die
    tech products and services may be forgotten, but they’re far from gone.
    How have these geezers managed to hang on for so long?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 that are 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; and 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 will be pleasantly
    surprised to learn that some of these 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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Dot Matrix Printer

    they were: The printer you probably owned if you had a PC in the house
    any time from the late 1970s until the early to mid-1990s. Models like
    the Epson FX-80 and the 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, inkjet makers 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 inkjet and laser models can’t match:
    Because the dot-matrix printhead hits the paper with a hard whack,
    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.Harry
    McCracken , PC World’s former Editor in Chief, blogs about all aspects
    of technology at Technologizer.com .

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Hayes Modems
    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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Sony MiniDisc
    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 80 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. While Sony introduced NetMD, a
    MiniDisc variant that supported MP3, the company 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

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Monochrome Displays
    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 16 shades of gray, and
    nothing else.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Hercules graphics cards
    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. (In 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
    in 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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Personal Digital Assistants
    they were: The handy-dandy, pocketable gadgets that started as
    organizers in the early 1990s and blossomed into full-blown computing
    devices, from the pioneering Apple Newton and Casio Zoomer to the
    enduringly popular Palm PalmPilot and Compaq iPaq lines.What happened:
    By 2005 or so, stand-alone PDAs were rendered almost entirely
    superfluous by their close cousins known as smartphones, which started
    out big and clunky but eventually did everything a PDA did, and a lot
    more. Despite occasional attempts to reinvent the PDA–such as Palm’s
    ill-fated LifeDrive–almost nobody chose to purchase and carry a phone
    and a PDA.Current whereabouts: I’m not sure when any manufacturer last
    released a new PDA, unless you want to count the iPod Touch as one.
    (And come to think of it, I can’t think of a strong argument against
    calling it a PDA.) HP, which acquired the iPaq line when it bought
    Compaq, still sells four aging PDAs under the name. Palm, meanwhile,
    maintains an eerie ghost town of a handheld store, which still lists
    three models but says they’re all sold out. Amazon still has Palm PDAs
    in stock, though, so they’re not quite dead. Yet.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Packard Bell PC manufacturer

    it was: A PC manufacturer (named after a venerable but defunct radio
    company) that dominated the retail home PC market in the early
    1990s.What happened: Numerous products in this article fell on hard
    times in part because of crummy business decisions by their owners, but
    no other one did itself in so quickly and so self-destructively as
    Packard Bell. Its computers were cheap in part because they were
    terrible, and backed by subpar customer support. When rivals such as
    Compaq started selling reasonable computers at reasonable prices
    through retail stores, Packard Bell started to founder. The decision by
    NEC to take a controlling interest in Packard Bell in 1995 seemed
    bizarre even at the time; in 2000, the last Packard Bells disappeared
    from U.S. store shelves.Current whereabouts: Lots of places–just not
    stateside. The brand name never died in Europe, and after a couple of
    further changes of ownership, it ended up as an arm of Taiwanese PC
    giant Acer in 2008. It now makes laptops, desktops, displays, MP3
    players, and desktops. And if it ever returns to the U.S. market, it’ll
    be a more impressive comeback than anything Paul “Pee-Wee Herman”
    Reubens has managed.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Amiga personal computers
    it was: A remarkable line of personal computers, introduced by home PC
    pioneer Commodore in 1985, that delivered powerful multimedia and
    multitasking years before they became commonplace on PCs and Macs.What
    happened: Well, you could fill a book with the details–and hey,
    someone did. Commodore had superb technology, but did a terrible job of
    developing and marketing it. You could argue that Amiga would have
    petered out no matter who owned it–even Apple flirted with death as
    DOS and then Windows overwhelmed other alternatives–but Commodore’s
    decision-making sure didn’t help. In 1994, it declared bankruptcy and
    stopped making computers. The Amiga name went on to change hands at
    least four times over the next decade, sometimes being used on
    hardware, sometimes being used on software, and sometimes just
    disappearing.Current whereabouts: Amiga, Inc, the current owner of the
    Amiga name, uses it on middleware for set-top boxes as well as games
    and other applications for cell phones (you can buy an Amiga tip
    calculator). It also says it’s still working on Amiga OS 4.0, a product
    so long in the making that it, like Harlan Ellison’s science-fiction
    anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, is best known for how long it’s
    been promised without ever appearing. As a former Amiga fanatic, I hope
    it does ship someday–there’s no way a new Amiga OS wouldn’t be cooler
    than an Amiga tip calculator.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Floppy disks
    they were: A form of removable storage, in 3.5-, 5.25-, and 8-inch
    variants, that started in the 1970s as a high-end alternative to saving
    programs on audio cassettes, then segued into serving as a handy
    complement to hard drives.What happened: Until the mid-1990s, floppies
    remained essential. But then the Internet came along and provided folks
    with file downloads and attachments–faster ways to accomplish tasks
    that had long been the floppy disk’s domain, without floppies’ 1.44MB
    capacity limitation. (Higher-capacity floppies arrived at about the
    same time, but never caught on.) Much higher-capacity storage media
    like Zip disks and recordable DVDs nudged floppies further towards
    irrelevancy. And USB drives–which provide a gigabyte or more of
    storage for less than what I paid for one 72KB floppy in the
    1970s–finished the job.Current whereabouts: Floppy drives are no
    longer standard equipment, but they certainly haven’t vanished–in
    fact, you may have a computer or two around the house that sports one.
    New 3.5-inch drives and media remain readily available, and you might
    be able to find 5.25-inch ones if you hunt a bit. (8-inch floppies I
    can’t help you with.) Which leaves only one question: Under what
    circumstances would you opt for floppies over something like a $10 (or
    so) 4GB USB drive that holds 2750 times as much data?

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Iomega Zip disks
    they were: Iomega’s extremely useful, cleverly marketed high-capacity
    removable disks–introduced back in 1994, when 100MB qualified as high
    capacity. They were never as pervasive as floppies, but they must be
    the most popular, most-loved proprietary disk format of all time.What
    happened: The same things that happened to floppy disks, only more
    slowly–and complicated by the malfunction ominously known as the click
    of death. When cheap CD burners made it easy to store 650MB on a
    low-cost disc that worked in nearly any computer, Zip started to look
    less capacious and cost-efficient. And then USB drives–which offered
    more storage than Zip and required no drive at all–came out. Along the
    way, Iomega launched new disk formats such as Jaz, PocketZip, and Rev,
    but they failed to recapture the Zip magic.Current whereabouts: Iomega
    seems to be doing fine as a manufacturer of storage products of all
    sorts. It still sells 250MB and 750MB Zip drives, along with Zip media
    going all the way back to the original 100MB disks. I confess that I
    never owned a Zip drive myself–but I’ll still feel a twinge of sadness
    when they finally go away.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Z80 microprocessor
    it was: The 8-bit microprocessor, dating to 1976, that powered an array
    of early personal computers, including the Radio Shack TRS-80, the
    Osborne 1, the KayPro II, the Sinclair ZX80, the Exidy Sorcerer, and
    many others. It was also inside Pac-Man arcade games and ColecoVision
    game consoles.What happened: Progress! Among the notable things about
    1981’s original IBM PC was its use of a powerful 16-bit CPU, the 8088.
    In time, 16-bit processors gave way to 32-bit ones, which have been
    superseded by 64-bit models like Intel’s Core 2 Duo and AMD’s
    Phenom.Current whereabouts: Everywhere–but invisibly so. It’s been
    more than a quarter-century since the chip’s time as a
    personal-computer CPU ended, but it never stopped finding useful life
    in industrial equipment, office devices, consumer electronics, and
    musical instruments. Zilog, the Z80’s inventor, still makes ‘em. Anyone
    want to wager on whether the Core 2 Duo will still be around in 2042?

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: dBase database software
    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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Netscape browser

    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 that 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 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?

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: MS-DOS
    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: The
    simplistic answer: When Windows 95, the first version of Windows that
    didn’t require DOS to run, came along, it rendered DOS obsolete.
    (Eventually–some people 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

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program
    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 that 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–especially after IBM bought Lotus
    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 that suite after a different old Lotus package–Symphony.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Aldus PageMaker desktop publishing app

    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, casual users
    had less need for PageMaker, and QuarkXPress 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 darned 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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Berkley Systems’s After Dark screensaver
    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 99.9999 percent 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 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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Harvard Graphics presentation-graphics program
    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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: AltaVista search engine

    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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: WebVan grocery delivery
    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 be 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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: CompuServe online service
    it was: The . 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 there 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; its 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.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Prodigy online service
    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 never 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. 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+

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: VCR Plus+
    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 on-screen guides,
    newspaper TV listings are even more anachronistic than newspapers in
    general.) But you know what? I’m not sure whether anyone’s still making
    VCRs with VCRPlus+.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Circuit City
    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 it hopes to restore some sort of online presence.

    Computer Products That Refuse to Die: Egghead Software
    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,
    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 any loyal customers are out there who aren’t aware that Egghead
    folded eight years ago. Sadly, the Professor is nowhere to be seen.