Monday, April 20, 2009

25 computer products that won't die (9-16)

Floppy disks
What they were: A form of removable storage, in 3.5-, 5.25- and 8-inch variants, that started in the 1970s as a high-end alternative to saving programs on audio cassettes, then segued into serving as a handy complement to hard drives.
What happened: Until the mid-1990s, floppies remained essential. But then the Internet came along and provided folks with file downloads and attachments -- faster ways to accomplish tasks that had long been the floppy disk’s domain, without floppies’ 1.44MB capacity limitation. (Higher-capacity floppies arrived at about the same time, but never caught on.) Much higher-capacity storage media like Zip disks and recordable DVDs nudged floppies further towards irrelevancy. And USB drives -- which provide a gigabyte or more of storage for less than what I paid for one 72KB floppy in the 1970s -- finished the job.
Current whereabouts: Floppy drives are no longer standard equipment, but they certainly haven’t vanished -- in fact, you may have a computer or two around the house that sports one. New 3.5-inch drives and media remain readily available, and you might be able to find 5.25-inch ones if you hunt a bit. (8-inch floppies I can’t help you with.) Which leaves only one question: Under what circumstances would you opt for floppies over something like a $10 (or so) 4GB USB drive that holds 2750 times as much data?
Zip disks
What they were: Iomega’s extremely useful, cleverly marketed high-capacity removable disks -- introduced back in 1994, when 100MB qualified as high capacity. They were never as pervasive as floppies, but they must be the most popular, most loved proprietary disk format of all time.
What happened: The same things that happened to floppy disks, only more slowly -- and complicated by the malfunction ominously known as the click of death. When cheap CD burners made it easy to store 650MB on a low-cost disc that worked in nearly any computer, Zip started to look less capacious and cost-efficient. And then USB drives -- which offered more storage than Zip and required no drive at all -- came out. Along the way, Iomega launched new disk formats such as Jaz, PocketZip and Rev, but they failed to recapture the Zip magic.
Current whereabouts: Iomega seems to be doing fine as a manufacturer of storage products of all sorts. It still sells 250MB and 750MB Zip drives, along with Zip media going all the way back to the original 100MB disks. I confess that I never owned a Zip drive myself -- but I’ll still feel a twinge of sadness when they finally go away.

Z80 microprocessor
What it was: The 8-bit microprocessor, dating to 1976, that powered an array of early personal computers, including the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Osborne 1, the KayPro II, the Sinclair ZX80, the Exidy Sorcerer and many others. It was also inside Pac-Man arcade games and ColecoVision game consoles.
What happened: Progress! Among the notable things about 1981’s original IBM PC was its use of a powerful 16-bit CPU, the 8088. In time, 16-bit processors gave way to 32-bit ones, which have been superseded by 64-bit models like Intel’s Core 2 Duo and AMD’s Phenom.
Current whereabouts: Everywhere -- but invisibly so. It’s been more than a quarter-century since the chip’s time as a personal-computer CPU ended, but it never stopped finding useful life in industrial equipment, office devices, consumer electronics and musical instruments. Zilog, the Z80’s inventor, still makes ‘em. Anyone want to wager on whether the Core 2 Duo will still be around in 2042?
Software survivors
What it was: The dominant PC database software from almost the moment it first appeared in 1980, and one of the best-known pieces of productivity software, period; the flagship product of Ashton-Tate back when that company was arguably a better-known name in software than Microsoft.
What happened: dBASE IV, mostly. That 1988 upgrade was late and buggy, and Ashton-Tate didn’t move fast enough to fix it, ticking off the loyal developers who had made dBASE a standard. The company also spent a lot of time suing competitors, which is never as productive an investment of time and money as improving one’s own products. In 1991, Borland bought Ashton-Tate for $439 million, and acquired dBASE IV’s bad luck along with it -- neither Borland nor dBASE fared well in subsequent years. And in 1992, Microsoft launched Access, a database that might have slaughtered dBASE no matter what. But dBASE was on the mat before Access ever entered the ring.
Current whereabouts: In 1999, dBASE was sold again, and its new owner, DataBased Intelligence, continues to sell it to this day. (It’s now called dBASE Plus, as if dBASE IV had never existed.) The company’s newsgroups are surprisingly active, showing that real people are still using dBASE to do real work. Not bad for a product that most of us wrote off as a goner early in the first Clinton administration.
What it was: The browser (formally known as Netscape Navigator for most of its life) and company that, beginning in 1994, jump-started both the Web and the Internet economy.
What happened: Hoo boy. Microsoft, after not even bundling a browser with Windows 95 at first, decided to crush Netscape -- which it did by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, giving it away for free and, eventually, making it pretty good. (Along the way, a certain governmental agency expressed its displeasure with some of the company’s anti-Netscape tactics.) Netscape, meanwhile, went off on tangents such as developing a communications suite that didn’t amount to much and enterprise software that it eventually sold to Sun. The company sold out to AOL in 1998; AOL had so little interest in the browser it bought that it continued to distribute IE as its primary one. An ever-shrinking user base did continue to get new versions of Netscape, but in December 2007, AOL announced it was pulling the plug.
Current whereabouts: If you’re an optimist, you’ll focus on one wonderful fact: Firefox, which is based on Mozilla code that originated as an open-source version of Netscape, is a huge success. The Netscape name, however, is profoundly shopworn. In recent years, AOL has slapped it on a budget ISP (which still exists but doesn’t seem to be signing up new customers) and an imitation of Digg (now known as Propeller). Today. it’s mostly just a slight variant on the home page with the Netscape logo repeated endlessly in the background. But did I mention that Firefox is doing great?

What it was: The operating system that powered the original 1981 IBM PC. And then a bunch of clones of the original IBM PC. And then the vast majority of the personal computers on the planet.
What happened: The simplistic answer: When Windows 95, the first version of Windows that didn’t require DOS to run, came along, it rendered DOS obsolete. (Eventually -- some people happily ran DOS and DOS applications for several years after Win 95 debuted.) More thoughtful answer: The moment that the Mac brought graphical-user interfaces into the mainstream in 1985, it was the beginning of the end of the drab, relentlessly text-based DOS.
Current whereabouts: DOS refuses to die. It seems to me that I still see it in use at small independent businesses such as antique stores and dry cleaners -- the kind of outfits that don’t bother to change something that still works, even if it’s a decade or two out of fashion. It’s the inspiration for FreeDOS, an open-source project with a thriving community. And Microsoft still offers MS-DOS 6.22 for download to customers who subscribe to various volume-licensing plans. Why would the company bother if there weren’t people who still needed it?
Lotus 1-2-3
What it was: The world’s most popular spreadsheet -- the first killer app for the IBM PC, and the spreadsheet that replaced the original killer app, VisiCalc. It was also the flagship program in Lotus’ SmartSuite, an office bundle that provided Microsoft Office with real competition in the mid-1990s.
What happened: A variant on the fates that befell WordPerfect, Harvard Graphics and other major DOS productivity apps. Lotus thought that IBM’s OS/2 would replace DOS, so it focused its energies on that OS, then had to play catch-up when OS/2 went nowhere and Windows caught on like crazy. Starting in the 1990s, it turned its attention to its Notes collaboration platform, and seemed less and less interested in desktop applications -- especially after IBM bought Lotus in 1995. That gave Microsoft plenty of opportunity to make Excel competitive with 1-2-3 and leverage its place in the Microsoft Office suite. By the late 1990s, 1-2-3 was a has-been; Lotus last upgraded it in 2002.
Current whereabouts: IBM still sells that 2002 version of 1-2-3, which it cheerfully calls “the latest release.” For $313, it throws in the other SmartSuite apps “as a bonus.” But it’s so disinterested in the product that made Lotus a software giant that when it recently introduced a new suite that includes a spreadsheet, it named that suite after a different old Lotus package -- Symphony.
What it was: Aldus’ groundbreaking desktop publishing application, launched in 1985. Along with Apple’s Macintosh and LaserWriter laser printer, it made it possible for mere mortals to create professional-looking documents (as well as eyeball-searing monstrosities) for the first time.
What happened: PageMaker’s decline was slow and multifaceted. As word processors gained respectable graphics capabilities, casual users had less need for PageMaker, and QuarkXPress offered more sophisticated tools for professionals. Adobe, which had acquired Aldus in 1994, lost interest in PageMaker and built its own publishing app, InDesign, from the ground up. In 2004, it announced that it would cease further development of PageMaker.
Current whereabouts: Over at Adobe’s Web site, it’s still selling PageMaker 7.0, which dates to 2002. The price: $499. It touts it as “the ideal page layout program for business, education and small- and home-office professionals who want to create high-quality publications such as brochures and newsletters.” Which is a darned odd claim to make about a program that’s incompatible with all current Macs (it’s an OS 9 application) and Windows Vista. Dig deeper and you’ll find Adobe’s real opinion of PageMaker, which is -- surprise! -- that you should use InDesign instead.

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