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.
What 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.