What 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.
What it was: The first major consumer online service. 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.
What 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.
What 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+.
What 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.
What 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.
You may enjoy these other Technologizer stories that focus on the history of technology:
- Then and Now: A Fast-Forward Tour of Gadget History
- Patentmania: The Golden Age of Electronic Games
- The Secret Origins of Clippy: Microsoft's Bizarre Animated Character Patents