What it was: Berkeley Systems’ screensaver for Macs and PCs, introduced in 1989 and most famous for its iconic flying toasters. Ask anyone to mention a specific screensaver, and the odds are 99.9999 percent that this is the one they’ll mention. It spawned multiple sequels and spinoffs such as neckties and boxer shorts.
What happened: I’m not sure if I know, exactly, but I suspect the inclusion of fancy screensavers in the Mac OS and Windows and the availability of gazillions of free ones didn’t help the market for commercial screensavers. (I still treasure my autographed copy of Berkeley Breathed’s Opus 'n Bill screensaver, though -- it includes a scene in which Bill the Cat shoots down flying toasters, which prompted a lawsuit.) Also, the theory that you needed a screensaver to prevent your monitor from burning in turned out to be hooey. Anyhow, Berkeley Systems’ last After Dark outing was something called After Dark Games, in 1998; it wasn’t even a screensaver.
Current whereabouts: Berkeley Systems is no more, but Infinisys, a Japanese company, sells a modern OS X version of After Dark. But not too modern: It doesn’t work on Intel Macs.
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 standalone 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.
What it was: A research project at legendary computer company Digital Equipment Corp. 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.
What it was: A grocery-delivery dot-com service that was famous, at first, for the ambition of its plans, the enormous size of their expense, and the impressive résumés 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.
What it was: The first online service. Starting in 1979, it offered message boards, news and information, e-commerce and other Weblike features -- long before there was a Web, and even before there was an AOL.
What happened: Well, the rise of AOL in the early 1990s left CompuServe as the second-largest online service, which was probably a lot less fun than being the biggest. Shortly thereafter, CompuServe had to deal with the Internet. Like other proprietary services, it became a not-very-satisfying not-quite-an-ISP. And as consumers flooded the Web, CompuServe’s once-bustling message boards started to feel deserted. In 1997, AOL bought CompuServe, and while CompuServe’s robust international network helped bolster AOL’s infrastructure, the CompuServe community dwindled away.
Current whereabouts: Like Netscape, CompuServe became a nameplate that AOL attaches to slightly embarrassing projects. It’s now a bargain-priced ISP and a half-hearted portal site; its boilerplate copy calls CompuServe a “key brand” and touts CompuServe 7.0 as “the newest version” without mentioning that it’s eight years old. (Weirdly, CompuServe’s home page also carries the logo of Wow, a faux-AOL that the company shuttered within months of its 1996 release -- I can’t believe that anyone misses it or is looking for it.) For those of us who were CompuServe users back when its user IDs consisted of lots of digits and a mysterious comma, it’s a depressing fate.
What it was: A joint venture of Sears Roebuck and IBM that launched an extremely consumery online service in 1990 -- a more mainstream alternative to CompuServe before AOL became a phenomenon. Geeks sneered at it (some called it “Stodigy”), but it managed to sign up a sizable number of users in an era when the typical American had never laid eyes on a modem.
What happened: Within a few years of Prodigy’s debut, the Internet made proprietary services like it (and CompuServe, Delphi, Genie, and, eventually, AOL) look like antiques. Prodigy started adding Internet features, and in 1997 it relaunched itself as a full-blown ISP. (It also shut down the original Prodigy service rather than fixing its Y2K bugs.) It did OK as an ISP, at least for awhile -- in 1998, it was the country’s fourth largest. But in 2001, SBC (now AT&T) bought Prodigy and retired the brand name.
Current whereabouts: Down south! In Mexico, Telmex, the dominant telecommunications company, owns the Prodigy name and still uses it. Here it is on a video site, and on a portal that’s co-branded with MSN (!). And don’t hold me to this, but I suspect that there are still some stateside SBC customers who retain Prodigy.net e-mail addresses -- just as I maintained a Mindspring one for years after that ISP was acquired by EarthLink.
What it was: Remember all those jokes about VCRs that permanently flashed 12:00? Starting in the early 1990s, the redundantly named VCR Plus+ (which was built into VCRs and available as an add-on in the form of a special remote control) simplified programming a video recorder by letting you punch in codes that appeared in TV listings in newspapers and TV Guide. (In fact, VCR Plus+ inventor Gemstar Development bought TV Guide in 1999 for $9.7 billion.)
What happened: VCR Plus+’s fortunes were dependent on the fortunes of the VCR. As the 1990s wore on, consumers spent less time futzing with recording tapes at all, and more time renting and buying tapes -- and, eventually, renting and buying DVDs. By the end of the decade, TiVo and ReplayTV allowed TV fans to record hours of shows without dealing with tapes at all. Meanwhile, Gemstar founder Henry Yuen was fired after an accounting scandal -- and then went missing.
Current whereabouts: VCR Plus+ is now owned by Macrovision, a company more famous for technologies that prevent people from recording entertainment than ones that help them do so. The codes are available on TVGuide.com and VCRPlus.com, and in newspaper TV listings. (Of course, in an era of 500 channels and on-screen guides, newspaper TV listings are even more anachronistic than newspapers in general.) But you know what? I’m not sure whether anyone’s still making VCRs with VCRPlus+.
What it was: A chain of consumer-electronics superstores with roots that went back to 1949. For a time in the 1990s, it was the most high-profile technology merchant in America.
What happened: Two words: “Best” and “Buy.” Plus misguided decisions like laying off experienced salespeople and replacing them with cheaper, clueless newbies. Not to mention the fact that almost every major electronics retailer eventually falls on hard times and liquidates itself -- it seems to go with the territory.
Current whereabouts: Up north! In the U.S., Circuit City is now a nationwide chain of large, empty storefronts, but its Canadian subsidiary, The Source by Circuit City, remains a 750-store powerhouse. (Confusingly -- at least for us Yanks -- the chain is the former RadioShack Canada.) Recently, Bell Canada agreed to buy The Source; it says it’ll keep the name, but I’m guessing it wasn’t referring to the “by Circuit City” part. But even if it deletes it, Circuit City may not be utterly dead: The home page for its currently closed site says it hopes to restore some sort of online presence.
What it was: A nationwide chain of software stores with an odd name and an even odder mascot (Professor Egghead, an Albert Einstein-lookalike anthropomorphic egg -- or was he a normal human cursed to live his life with an egg for a noggin?).
What happened: Like most tech retailers, Egghead eventually fell on hard times; in 1998, it shuttered its stores and went online only. In 2001 it declared bankruptcy and closed the site, too (bad publicity after hackers broke into its customer database apparently speeded its demise).
Current whereabouts: Even after the business collapsed, the Egghead name was worth something -- $6.1 million, which is what Amazon.com paid for it in 2001. The e-tailing giant continues to sell software at Egghead.com. It’s basically the software section of Amazon’s own site, but it does sport an Egghead logo, just in case any loyal customers are out there who aren’t aware that Egghead folded eight years ago. Sadly, the professor is nowhere to be seen.