What it was: The dominant online service of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a classy operation, but it was eventually overtaken by AOL, and then acquired by it in 1997.
What it became: AOL plunked down $1.2 billion for CompuServe, but it began neglecting it the moment the ink on the contract was dry. It finally shut down CompuServe Classic, the direct descendant of the original service, in July of 2009.
Today, the “About CompuServe” page brags that it “provides complete and comprehensive products and access for Internet online users at home, in the workplace and around the globe,” but don’t you believe it–it’s really a budget-priced dial-up ISP aimed at “value-driven adults going online for the first time.” Depending on which part of the site you trust, the current version of the service is either CompuServe 7.0, which was introduced back in 2001, or the even-mustier CompuServe 2000. And the brand has been oddly melded with another tarnished AOL acquisition, Netscape.
What it was: The peer-to-peer file-swapping service invented by Boston college student Shawn Fanning in 1999. It did as much as anything else to introduce the world to digital music, but it terrified the entertainment industry, which instantly sued. A court order put Napster out of business in 2001.
What it became: In 2002, Roxio bought the Napster name at auction and applied it to the not-very-successful Pressplay music service, which it had purchased from Universal Music and Sony–two of the Recording Industry Association of America members whose legal attack had shut down Napster in the first place. It was as if a victorious Darth Vader had licensed the rights to rebrand the Empire as the Rebel Alliance.
Today’s Napster is owned by Best Buy, and it’s not bad–and at five bucks a month for a basic account, it’s not pricey, either. But whenever I speak its name, I still want to surround it with air quotes.
4. Packard Bell
What it became: Like every other U.S. maker of radios and TVs, Packard Bell eventually ran into dire straits. In 1986, the brand name was bought by Israeli entrepreneur Beny Alagem, who applied it to a new line of home PCs. The new company played up the name’s distinguished history with the slogan “America grew up listening to us. It still does.” It also did nothing to dispel the confusion of consumers who thought it had something to do with Hewlett-Packard and/or AT&T (“the Bell System”).
And it made…truly dreadful computers, with lousy customer service. Ones that were so cruddy that people stopped thinking of Packard Bell as a defunct maker of good radios and began thinking of it as an extant maker of terrible PCs. The company was eventually bought by NEC, which abandoned the U.S. market but kept on selling PB computers in Europe. (I’m assuming that they must have been better than the U.S.-era ones; if they were as bad, there’s no way the company could have stayed in business.)
Packard Bell was in the news again last year when it was bought by bought by Taiwanese PC giant Acer; it shows no signs of returning to the U.S. market, but I still know people who shudder when they hear its name.