Forgotten giants of technology

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Tech giants that don’t exist anymore, but are missed anyway...

 

When was the last time you AltaVisted something? Do you remember the day you stopped using Sony’s Discman? That’s right, tech progress is unstoppable, and we don’t even notice when these little changes start becoming our daily routines. Most devices or online services we’ve been using in the late 90s (or earlier) don’t exist anymore – sometimes we can only mention them with nostalgia among a group of friends. Some of them changed beyond any recognition, and we weren’t even aware of it. It just happened. 

The thing is, the world as we know it wouldn’t look the same as it looks now if it wasn’t for some companies that paved the way for progress and introduced products that – as startupers like to say – disrupted the tech industry. We all know companies that were established in the past century, survived and strived. Apple? Established in 1976. Atari? 1984. Google? Pretty late, because it was September 1998. But what about businesses that went bankrupt? Companies that didn’t keep up the pace and vanished? We want to remind you of some of them. They really deserve it.

 

1. Palm – lack of understanding of needs

 

Tech giants - Palm logo

A long before anyone knew what a smartphone is and Android OS wasn’t even planned, Palm INC created a device that dominated the Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) market. Notebooks, calendars, dozens of business cards – you no longer had to carry all that with you. You had it in your Palm. A device that helped organize the day of every busy person was introduced to the market and people instantly loved it. 

The first PDA, PalmPilot 1000 was released in 1996, and it was the beginning of the handheld computers and smartphones era. Where Apple has failed, Palm succeeded and secured dominance in the market for years to come. Millions of devices sold worldwide, but with time consumers started expecting something more. 

First attempts at smartphones were made by competitors and Palm had to expand as well – into what later became a much larger market (it’s estimated that it’ll hit $1351.8 billion in value by 2026). The problem is that regular people have different needs than business people. The product Palm introduced was okay from the technical point of view, but a string of unfortunate decisions led to Palm losing the war with Blackberry, Apple and other manufacturers. This way a company, with a share value of $669 in late 2000 was purchased for $1.2 billion by HP in 2010. Only for $5.70 a share. Soon after HP retired the brand Palm and an iconic PDA business ceased to exist. In 2018 a new startup introduced a new line of Palm products, but it’s not in the slightest as successful and cool as it was 20 years ago. 

 

2. Compaq – no vision, no prospects

 

Tech giants - Compaq logo

If you had a PC in the 90s, there are chances that it was Compaq’s hardware. In 1998 the company held a 13.8% share in the global PC market and above 15% in the US alone. The issue here is that the decline, when started, was hard to stop.

When you’re on the top for so long, Compaq was established in 1982, you start thinking you’re unstoppable. And it’s difficult to shake that feeling when analyzing Compaq’s case. The company started acquiring new business and diversified its income from PCs. The prime example was a merger with DEC in 1998 for, an impressive, 9 billion dollars. DEC was already a huge company (larger than Compaq in terms of workforce), but wasn’t as profitable as Compaq. Their solution to that was to enter the services market. At the time almost half of DEC income came from services.

It caused other problems, because with such organization, planned layoffs, new markets to dominate and lack of clear vision for the company, it was hard to focus on the core product computers. Competitors used that opportunity and Dell started selling much cheaper devices designed to meet masses needs. Compaq couldn’t compete with these prices and too late realized what was happening with the market. In 2002 HP acquired Compaq for $25 billion and until 2013 the brand was marketed by the new owner for their lower-end devices. Then Compaq retired. 

Who knows how the computer manufacturers market would look like today, if Compaq was more flexible and focused on its key product. Maybe still 15% of the world would use their products.

 

3. Pets.com  – a prime example of dot-com madness

 

Pets.com logo

It was 1998, when Pets.com entered the Internet. Their business was based on the online sale of pet products focused on retail customers. The rapid development of the Internet network at that time and the fact that having a computer was no longer a privilege, but a necessity, was the start of the dot-com era. It was a real technological madness.

This madness went on. Investors began to spend money on any Internet company, preferably on businesses with the “.com” suffix in the name. Unfortunately, expectations often didn’t correspond to reality. And companies that started their operations online were, to put it mildly, overrated. 

This was also the case with Pet.com, which was doing really well. In 1999, they collaborated with Amazon, which had a 30% share in the company. In 2000 dot-com bought its largest competitor, Petstore.com, and in 2000, it invested $1.2 million in advertising on Super Bowl. They had everything. Money, recognition, good advertising. Management failed.

They had no business plan, and what’s worse, they spent more money than they had earned. For example, in the period from February to September 1999, they made a total of $619,000 and spent $11.8 million on advertising. Additionally, they sold products for 27% of the costs they incurred themselves. It couldn’t work.

The company went bankrupt in 2000. Their stock from IPO price of $11 per share in February 2000 had fallen to $0.19 the day, when they announced their liquidation.  

 

4. Polaroid – an example of how digital products make other products obsolete

 

Polaroid Logo

Polaroid needs no introduction for fans of instant photography. A company founder, Edwin Herbert Land, in 1929 patented his invention – the polarizing film – and in 1937 started the company’s activity. Only few people know that in addition to instant cameras and films, Polaroid also created some infrared vision devices used during World War II. But that’s the interesting facts, let’s get down to business.

The instant camera and the film became the company’s best products which appeared in black & white version in 1947 as “Land Camera” and in 1963 making color instant photography possible. Everything was going great until digital cameras hit the market.

The rapid development of digital technology meant that the company was left behind over time without being able to catch up with its rivals. Even trying to introduce digital cameras wouldn’t help.

Digital cameras proved to be less expensive and faster than instant ones The possibility of previewing photos and other such benefits made their sales amounted to 28 million units in 2007. At the same time instant cameras had only 240.000 units sold.

Polaroid Company declared bankruptcy in 2001. The giant of analog photography was put out of the business. All because of a rapid technological shift.

Currently, the company is owned by a Polish investor, Wiaczesław Smołokowski, who bought it in 2017. And it has a chance to gain sympathy with analog photography enthusiasts. Will Polaroid come alive? Certainly less alive than it used to be, but it’s worth trying.

 

5. Napster – ignorance of the law excuses not…

 

Napster logo

There was an idea, there was a youthful spirit, and finally – there was a collection of good music. In 1999 a group of students founded innovative software that made it possible to share music files in MP3 format as a P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing service.

At the beginning of its existence, users came from campuses and learned about the program from friends. Napster over time, allowing unlimited, charge-free access to music, boasted up to about 80 million users! Some people say, there was no computer in the United States that didn’t have Napster to exchange MP3 files.

Yes… You will ask what about copyright? That’s the point. Napster forgot (?) about this point. They didn’t have to wait long for some big problems. The music industry started a real war. In 2000, the band Metallica sued the company for sharing their song “I Disappear” prior to its official release. It was heavy…

Music companies became more and more interested in Napster. In 2000 A&M Records brought a lawsuit with the Recording Industry Association of America’s help, which completely destroyed the company. The greatness of Napster, which allowed fans unlimited access to music, was coming to an end… The court ordered Napster to track its network activities and restrict access to infringing music files. Naturally, the company was unable to meet these requirements. In 2001, Napster closed its operations.

 

6. Broadcast.com and how to make a good business

 

broadcast.com logo

Once upon a time, someone had an idea to make an Internet radio. But not just some ordinary one, just the kind with which big sports fans will be able to listen to sports events from everywhere! And that’s how Broadcast.com was born. Or actually AudioNet, because the company was founded under this name in September 1995.

AudioNet offered users a portable device receiving satellite signals. It started operating in the dot-com era, so they quickly widened the range of their streams and started broadcasting political material in addition to sports broadcasts.

In 1998, they changed their name to Broadcast.com and held their IPO. The stock price soared 250% the same day. Investors were already getting ready to attack. And the owners were getting ready for a perfect deal.

The company was bought in 1999 by the giant – Yahoo! – for a total of $5.7 billion. However, Yahoo! didn’t foresee that an attempt to incorporate Broadcast.com into its structures might fail, so the service was discontinued over time. The owners turned billionaires by selling their tech company. And to tell you the truth, that wasn’t their problem anymore. 

 

7. Friends Reunited – the first social network in the UK

Friends Reunited logo

A mixture of a market gap and an idea to fill it. We’re talking about the first online social network targeted at Great Britain. It’s a husband, wife and their friend business that began its history as an Internet startup in 2000. The founder was simply intrigued by the fate of her schoolmates. And that’s how it was created!

The popularity of Friends Reunited grew year by year, and in 2007 a study showed that as many as 55% of British adults belonged to the community. It was a real cultural phenomenon. Users simply entered information about themselves on their profiles. This made it easy for the rest of the community to track them down. Nothing easier.

The company grew and hired new employees. Sister websites were also created soon – Genes Reunited focusing on searching for ancestors and a typical love-seeking portal – Friends Reunited Dating. Friends Reunited was also used by potential employers to select candidates in the recruitment process.

In 2005, ITV offered them about £120 million. Well, wouldn’t you agree? The small family business turned out to be very profitable.

The site began to decline slowly under the new owner rules. The growing strength of Facebook, which people could use for anything made old-fashioned Friends Reunited losing this battle. The service, which covers only a few English-speaking countries, and its outdated design made fewer and fewer users want to use it. In 2016, after 16 years of operation, the website was closed.

 

8. AltaVista and pre-Google domination

 

AltaVista logo

Simple interface, fast and multi-threaded search and efficient back-end. That’s AltaVista, the Web search engine created in 1995.

What made it special? A possibility of searching for phrases and graphics… Additionally, it was multi-language (counting Japanese and Chinese that don’t use the Latin alphabet). Automatic page translations? No problem with Babel Fish! But first of all, it made searching much faster by using DEC’s 64-bit Alpha processor. Yes, yes, such technological things happened in the last century!

The traffic grew at an express pace. The initial 300,000 daily searches over two years have already amounted to over 80 million daily. AltaVista was the 11th most used website in 1998 and 2000. As many as 17.7% of Internet users used this search engine at the beginning of the millennium, when Google could count on only 7%.

What went wrong? When AltaVista was bought by Compaq, it gradually lost its importance. Then it only got worse. AltaVista was sold for $140 million in 2003 by Overture Services, which was soon acquired by Yahoo! – they caused the search engine to shut down in 2013.

 

9. Netscape – new age software

 

Netscape logo

This software company was founded in 1995. During the years of their activity, technological innovations that came out of their company made a real revolution.

They invented JavaScript, the programming language that is used to write website scripts, and the SSL protocol that secures websites too. The Netscape browser (Netscape Navigator) was the dominant among the competition and the first commercial Internet search engine.

It was also the beginning of the browser war that continues to this day. Netscape had lost this battle with Internet Explorer. In 1999 there was a moment of hope for the Netscape Navigator, because AOL decided to buy it, but they were unable to restore its former glory. In December 2007, AOL announced that they have no intention of further supporting the development of the Navigator. This was actually the end of the first web browser.

Perhaps few people know, that another popular browser, Firefox, has a connection with Netscape! Mozilla, the free software community, was founded in 1998 by Netscape’s members. The spirit of the past is still alive in software reality.

 

10. Blockbuster and how streaming displaces tradition

 

Blockbuster logo

Ah, those times when movies and video games were rented stationary on VHS tapes. Do you  remember these lovely times of Blockbuster? It’s hard to miss. The company founded in 1985  grew rapidly in the 90s and reached its peak in 2004. It wasn’t limited to the US area, but also provided international services. 

Everything was great until Netflix came out. What’s interesting, Blockbuster had an opportunity to buy Netflix at its beginning for about $50 million. The company’s management decided not to make such a deal and today Netflix is $250 billion. “Mom-and-pop stores” one by one began to fall. The Internet revolution, which Blockbuster didn’t take advantage of and lack of recognition of the streaming potential, lost this giant, which in 2004 had about 9,000 rental shops. Now, nothing of its former glory is left. But our hearts will always belong to them! Even though Netflix is more practical, Blockbuster had a soul. And that matters.

 

Without them, the world wouldn’t look the same as it looks now. These ten examples above are about innovators of their times. Although they didn’t survive – technology owes them a lot. Well the world is moving forward. This is inevitable and cruel to many companies. Usually fierce competition or bad management also turn out to be a big challenge. This was also the case in most of the above examples.

What’s the lesson? You keep up the pace, or you die… There’s no middle ground.

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