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.
What they were: Dial-up modems from the company whose founder, Dennis Hayes, essentially invented the PC modem in the 1970s. The commands he devised became such a standard that all dial-up modems use them to this day. Hayes dominated the modem business for years--it was as synonymous with the product category it pioneered as any tech company before or since.
What happened: Well, dial-up modems don't matter as much as they once did, in case you hadn't noticed. But Hayes' decline and fall dates to well before the death of dial-up: The company stubbornly kept prices high even in the face of much cheaper competition, and thought its future lay in making ISDN modems, a market that never took off. It declared bankruptcy in 1994 and again in 1998, and was liquidated in 1999.
Current whereabouts: In 1999, Zoom Telephonics--the company whose dirt-cheap modems played a major role in crushing Hayes--bought the Hayes name. It continues to market a few Hayes-branded modems. But it's a pretty obscure fate for a once-mighty brand--I didn't know it was still extant at all until I checked.