From Netscape to Napster: Whatever happened to yesterday's giants?
The sudden, quiet killing of the legendary Winamp media player sent a shiver across the Web last week. Just like that, a software giant of yore was gone. But once the initial shock wore off, another thought settled in: “Wait, Winamp was still around?”
And that got me thinking: Whatever happened to all those classic websites and programs that, like Winamp, were found on virtually every PC around the turn of the century? Microsoft snuffed out Clippy (and rightfully so), but what was the fate of RealPlayer, and CompuServe, and—man, oh man—BonziBuddy? Some have joined Winamp in the great Recycle Bin in the sky. Some are still trundling along. And everywhere you turn, you’ll find the twin shadows of AOL and Yahoo. Let’s dig in.
Before we start singing dirges for the dead, let’s highlight a scrappy classic that’s still hanging on. The iconic (and annoying) RealPlayer slung songs on computers across the United States in the late 1990s, mostly because it—along with Winamp—was one of the few free MP3 spinners available to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft’s native Windows Media Player.
RealNetworks’ music maestro is still alive and kicking, complete with mobile apps, but in September the company shifted away from straight tune-twiddling. The revamped RealPlayer Cloud mixes media playing with cloud storage, letting you shift your songs and videos wirelessly from device to device. See? Old dogs can learn new tricks. (You can still find the stand-alone RealPlayer software banging around, too.)
While we’re tossing out clichés, let’s add “It’s a small world” too, because the RealNetworks story intertwines with that of Napster, the peer-to-peer service that kicked off the file-sharing craze and sent Metallica’s Lars Ulrich into serial apoplectic fits.
Angry musicians and their lawyers forced Napster to shut down its service in 2001, and bankruptcy soon followed. The Napster name traded hands multiple times in the years thereafter, eventually evolving into an online music store, ironically enough. In 2011, Rhapsody—which had just spun off from RealNetworks the year prior—bought the brand and folded Napster into its service.
Heading to Napster.com now reveals a splash page saying “Napster has joined Rhapsody” and pointing you toward Rhapsody.com—an ignoble end for an Internet classic.
Netscape Navigator was the window to the World Wide Web in the early days of browsing, before Internet Explorer was even the barest of radar blips. Microsoft’s browser ascended quickly during the first browser wars, however—with some help—and by the turn of the century Netscape’s heyday was long forgotten.
AOL gobbled up Netscape Communications for $4.2 billion in 1998 and kept pumping out releases for the legendary browser until 2007, when Navigator was finally laid to rest. Remnants of the Netscape brand can still be found at the netscape.aol.com portal, and in the bizarre Netscape Internet Service, which provides dial-up Internet access for $10 per month.
But perhaps it’s what rose from the ashes of Navigator that’s more important. Netscape open-sourced the Navigator code shortly before its AOL acquisition, and from that sprung the Mozilla Project. A staunch defender of the open Web, Mozilla went on to create the free and open-source Firefox Web browser—a momentous event that led to another generation of browser wars and to the prosperous Chrome-IE-Firefox détente of today.
Speaking of dial-up ISPs, CompuServe battled AOL and Prodigy for the right to use the phone line all the way back in the 1990s. AOL eventually got the upper hand and bought the company near the turn of the century. AOL kept its former rival kicking (however weakly) until 2009, when the rise of broadband eventually spelled the end for CompuServe Classic.
That doesn’t mean CompuServe is completely dead, however: As with Netscape, AOL keeps “CompuServe Interactive Services” around “to meet the needs of one of the fastest-growing segments of the Internet: value-driven adults going online for the first time.” Right. Appropriately, this vestigial CompuServe’s homepage has a pop-up news box powered by Netscape and a netscape.compuserve.com URL.
Before you snigger at the fate of CompuServe and Netscape, however, consider that AOL’s dial-up subscription business generated more than $200 million in revenues last quarter alone.
AltaVista and GeoCities
AOL wasn’t the only dial-up-era heavyweight that vacuumed up top-notch competitors when the times were good, only to kill them off quietly when the spotlight moved on. AltaVista and GeoCities were the Google and WordPress of their day, respectively, before being bought by The Purple Machine for princely sums.
All that glittering gold did nothing to save the websites, however. Yahoo shuttered GeoCities in 2009, whereas AltaVista lasted all the way until July of this year before its digital demise. (This doesn’t bode well for Katie Couric.)
AltaVista’s homepage simply redirects to the Yahoo Search page now, but if you want to bask in the craptacular design of the dial-up Web, check out the One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op Tumblr feed, which posts random screenshots of GeoCities websites culled from the 900GB torrent of all the GeoCities webpages ever created.
Oh, BonziBuddy. Sure, you were nothing more than a purple, pokable, pleasantry-spouting gorilla, but dammit, every time you called my name and cracked a lame joke, it made computers seem magical.
Unfortunately, the carefree façade harbored a deeper, darker secret. For all his wisecracks and interesting facts, BonziBuddy was little more than an amusing (annoying?) adware peddler, and one that could hijack your Internet Explorer homepage, at that. Antivirus makers began putting the kibosh on BonziBuddy installations, and in 2004 the FTC ordered the company behind the gorilla to pay $75,000 in fines for collecting data from minors.
Shortly thereafter, BonziBuddy was killed, and despite my warm memories of the grape gorilla, the computing world is a better place in his absence.
Long before Netflix and smart sets, Web TV carved itself a niche as a set-top box that brought the Net to your boob tube, complete with a Web browser, a 33.3-kbps modem, and a bundled keyboard. Less than a year after its September 1996 launch, Microsoft bought the company for half a million bucks.
The concept never really caught on with the mainstream, however, and Microsoft’s Xbox line of gaming consoles eventually emerged as the company’s flagship foray into the living room. Microsoft rechristened WebTV as MSN TV mere months before the launch of the original Xbox in 2001. Then, in July of this year, Microsoft announced it would be eliminating MSN TV completely—just months after the company unveiled the Xbox One and its slew of TV-friendly features. In a case of bittersweet synchronicity, the announcement came on the same day that Yahoo shuttered AltaVista. MSN TV shut down for good on September 30.
But look on the bright side: If you long for a 1990s-era service to keep connected, you can still turn to the propped-up corpses of Netscape and CompuServe. They’re all that’s left (barely) of a once-exalted cohort.