25 computer products that refuse to die

Old computer products, like old soldiers, never die. They stay on the market--even though they haven't been updated in eons

Harvard Graphics

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

AltaVista

What it was: A research project at legendary computer company Digital Equipment Corporation that became the first widely popular Web search engine soon after its launch in December, 1995.

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.

Webvan

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.

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Harry McCracken

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