Where Are They Now? 25 Computer Products That Refuse to Die
What 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.
What 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.
What 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.
What 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.
Sites, Services, and Stores
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.