by Lynn Greiner

Dearly Departed: Companies and Products That Didn’t Deserve to Die

Jul 23, 200710 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsOperating SystemsOutsourcing

Some products just didn't deserve to die. But they did, because the companies made bad business decisions. We revisit several of our favorites--from minicomputers to software utilities--and mourn the best and brightest that died an untimely death.

The computer industry is an unforgiving place. One slip, and today’s darling becomes tomorrow’s footnote, regardless of its previous track record. One lousy upgrade can be enough to do in a company, especially if a nimble-footed competitor leaps in with smart marketing and a usable product.

Then there are the companies whose missteps were not in their products, but in their business practices. Let’s face it; geeks are not necessarily good accountants. Or marketers. Or distribution experts. And, sadly, some get taken advantage of by savvy businessmen who see an opportunity for profit.

Nostalgic souls that we are, we pulled together a list of a few of the dearly departed to honor their memories with a brief look at their prematurely truncated lives. Some of their products live on with other vendors, but the essence that made each company special has disappeared into the annals of time.

Commanded out of existence

  • Company: Digital Equipment Corp.
  • Born: 1957
  • Died: 1998 (merger with Compaq)
  • Cause of Death: Ken Olsen
  • Founder: Ken Olsen
  • Most well-known product(s): PDP and VAX minicomputers
  • Why we miss them: Legendary reliability and innovation. DEC systems created gods of the command line.
  • Lasting image/quote: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” -Ken Olsen, 1977

But to be fair, read this Snopes article about the quote:

The day the nonstop…stopped

  • Company: Tandem
  • Born: 1974
  • Died: 1997 (acquired by Compaq)
  • Cause of Death: Couldn’t hold its own when workstation vendors invaded its marketplace
  • Founders: Group of engineers from HP, led by James Treybig
  • Most well-known product(s): NonStop hardware and software
  • Why we miss them: MTBF was measured in years in a time when systems crashed every few days.
  • Lasting image/quote: “I don’t feel like I was successful because I made a lot of money, although that’s a nice byproduct. I feel like I was successful because I changed, in a positive way, the way many people experience their own world.” -James Treybig, 2006

Elegance and ease wasn’t enough

  • Company: Apollo
  • Born: 1980
  • Died: 1989 (acquired by HP)
  • Cause of Death: Market consolidation
  • Founder: William Poduska (also cofounder of Prime)
  • Most well-known product(s): Apollo workstations
  • Why we miss them: Elegant design and easy to administer. But at least the products survived for a while and injected their DNA into HP’s workstations.
  • Lasting image/quote: “It was the most schizophrenic operating system I ever dealt with. The Unix market was really fragmented then and the argument between the SysV and BSD flavors was going strong.Apollo decided to have the best of both worlds and implemented most everything both ways.” -Rene Churchill, former Apollo user.

Turbo ran out of gas …

  • Company: Borland Software Corp.
  • Born: 1983
  • Reborn: 2001 (renamed Borland)
  • Born again: 2006 (changed focus to application lifecycle management)
  • Died: 1998 (name change to Inprise)
  • Cause of Death: Philippe Kahn’s departure
  • Founders: Philippe Kahn and Spencer Ozawa
  • Most well-known product(s): Turbo Pascal, Turbo C, SideKick
  • Why we miss them: Development tools for the masses; their “no-nonsense license agreement” that let you install the software on several machines, as long as only one copy was in use at any time.
  • Lasting image/quote: “Philippe’s greatest contribution is radical guerrilla marketing. The fact that he sold his compiler for $49 through the mail was amazing [at the time].” -Sheldon Laube, chairman of CenterBeam Inc., 1999

Lack of cash trumped innovation

  • Company: Amiga
  • Born: 1982
  • Died: 1984
  • Cause of Death: Lack of funding; acquired by Commodore
  • Founders: Jay Miner, Dave Morse and R.J. Mical
  • Most well-known product(s): Amiga chipset
  • Why we miss them: Great graphics, great sound and a GUI in a command-line world.
  • Lasting image/quote: The “Guru Meditation” when the OS crashed.

Business is war … and they lost

  • Company: Commodore Business Machines
  • Born: 1962
  • Died: 1994
  • Cause of Death: Bad product decisions leading to bankruptcy
  • Founder: Jack Tramiel
  • Most well-known product(s): Pet, Vic-20, Commodore 64, Commodore 128, Amiga
  • Why we miss them: We cut our computing teeth on Commodores.
  • Lasting image/quote: “Business is war.” -Jack Tramiel

They sued themselves to death

  • Company: Ashton-Tate
  • Born: 1980
  • Died: 1991 (acquired by Borland)
  • Cause of Death: dBase IV and failed innovation by litigation
  • Founders: George Tate and Hal Lashlee
  • Most well-known product(s): dBase II, III, IV, MultiMate
  • Why we miss them: Arguably the first programmable microcomputer database; a whole industry was built around dBase.
  • Lasting image/quotes: “Ashton-Tate is no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of the software industry.” -Industry analyst Stewart Alsop II, 1988
  • “A computer will not make a good manager out of a bad manager. It makes a good manager better faster and a bad manager worse faster.” -Ed Esber, president, Ashton-Tate, 1986

The Fox got eaten …

  • Company: Fox Software
  • Born: 1984
  • Died: 1992 (acquired by Microsoft)

Cause of Death: Acquired by Microsoft

  • Founders: Dave Fulton and Richard LaValley
  • Most well-known product(s): FoxPro
  • Why we miss them: The FoxPro community was second to none.
  • Lasting image/quote: “There are either three ways to do it in Fox or none at all.” -origin unknown

Bought to be killed …

  • Company: Central Point Software
  • Born: 1980
  • Died: 1994
  • Cause of Death: Acquired by Symantec
  • Founder: Michael Burmeister-Brown
  • Most well-known product(s): PC Tools, Copy II PC
  • Why we miss them: They gave us all of the utilities we needed in a single package, even an alternative shell; reviewers called PC Tools Desktop “a better Windows than Windows” (and at the time it was).
  • Lasting image/quote: Famous last words: “Success in the competitive enterprise arena was critical to both companies’ long-term growth. Symantec’s strengths-data recovery and data management-are very complementary to our own. Together we are a stronger enterprise company.” -Chuck Boesenberg, CEO and chairman of Central Point, when Symantec acquired the company. Then Symantec killed the Central Point products.

Thanks for the memory (manager)

  • Company: Quarterdeck Office Systems
  • Born: 1982
  • Died: 1998 (acquired by Symantec)
  • Cause of Death: The market for DOS utilities collapsed
  • Founders: Therese E. Myers and Gary Pope
  • Most well-known product(s): QEMM, DESQview
  • Why we miss them: They let us multitask in a single task environment.
  • Lasting image/quote: “When we started out, people were saying they never did several things at the same time on their PCs. They said, “Hey, I only use WordPerfect,” or “I never use anything but 1-2-3.” But we’ve seen tremendous growth in environments; it just took forever for that to happen.” -Therese Myers, president, Quarterdeck, 1990

The end of an Amazing Story …

  • Company: Gould
  • Born: 1884
  • Died: 1988 (non-defense operations sold)
  • Cause of Death: Deteriorating financial condition; sold divisions to raise cash
  • Founder: Charles Gould
  • Most well-known product(s): Gould/SEL superminis
  • Why we miss them: For a time, they built the fastest minicomputer in the world.
  • Lasting image/quote: Their machines created the opening animation for Steven Spielberg’s television series “Amazing Stories.”

Getting serious wasn’t funny …

  • Company: Infocom
  • Born: 1979
  • Died: 1986 (acquired by Activision)
  • Cause of Death: Trying to get serious; they poured too many resources into developing a database product that failed
  • Founders: Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Albert Vezza and Joel Berez
  • Most well-known product(s): Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos
  • Why we miss them: Challenging and whimsical games; the New Zork Times (later renamed The Status Line after The New York Times got cranky). You can find links to issues here:
  • Lasting image/quote: “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” -Zork

Their lights went out

  • Company: Sequent
  • Born: 1983
  • Died: 1999
  • Cause of Death: Unusual accounting practices, which led to its acquisition by IBM
  • Founders: 17 engineers and executives from Intel
  • Most well-known product(s): Symmetry and NUMA
  • Why we miss them: They enabled a lights-out datacenter.
  • Lasting image/quote: “We wonder whether part of the reason IBM has taken out Sequent is to prevent it falling to Gateway, Dell or another PC maker looking to get into the enterprise.” -William Fellows, Computergram International, 1999

Alas, Windows caught on …

  • Company: Poqet Computer
  • Born: 1988
  • Died: 1994 (purchased by Fujitsu)
  • Cause of Death: Ahead of its time
  • Founders: Ian Cullimore, John Fairbanks, Leroy Harper, Shinpei Ichikawa, Stav Prodromou
  • Most well-known product(s): Poqet PC
  • Why we miss them: A 1-pound IBM PC/XT compatible-what’s not to miss! The computer was the size of a videocassette, ran MS-DOS, and included a modem.
  • Lasting image/quote: “If this Microsoft Windows thing doesn’t pan out, the Poqet will rule the world… -PC Magazine

It’s not easy being Pink …

  • Company: Taligent
  • Born: 1988
  • Died: 1998
  • Cause of Death: Death of CEO Dick Guarino
  • Founder: Spun off from Apple as joint project with IBM
  • Most well-known product(s): “Pink” (TalOS), CommonPoint
  • Why we miss them: They had a great vision, though it was marred by political battles between the partners.
  • Lasting image/quote: “In 1992, the earth shook: IBM and Apple clasped hands and pronounced themselves allies. From this union sprang Taligent, a small Cupertino, California, company that’s now developing nothing less than a universal operating system.” -MacWorld, 1994

Not quite Perfect enough …

  • Company: WordPerfect
  • Born: 1978 (as Satellite Software International, renamed in 1982)
  • Died: 1994 (acquired by Novell)
  • Cause of Death: A badly executed Windows port was the beginning of the end
  • Founders: Bruce Bastian and Alan Ashton
  • Most well-known product(s): WordPerfect
  • Why we miss them: Great customer service. And WordPerfect ran everywhere; the application could open virtually any word processing file in a day when proprietary was king.
  • Lasting image/quote: Two good reasons for not going public: “We don’t have to tell everybody our mistakes, and we can make decisions quickly.” -Pete Peterson, president, WordPerfect Corp., 1992

It wasn’t better late …

  • Company: Lotus Development
  • Born: 1982
  • Died: 1995 (acquired by IBM)
  • Cause of Death: A late port to 32-bit architecture lost Lotus its market dominance
  • Founders: Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs
  • Most well-known product(s): Lotus 1-2-3, Notes
  • Why we miss them: 1-2-3 was the killer app that made PCs useful.
  • Lasting image/quote: “One of the most important things [for us to] do is to connect 1-2-3 users with sources of external data, whether it’s data from databases on the personal computer, a network, a host or a minicomputer. We built an entire technology called DataLens to accomplish the task of getting data from databases into 1-2-3. We learned recently there is an equivalent need of getting 1-2-3 data out to somebody else. In a Lotus context, that’s the single best definition of the integration of two worlds: 1-2-3 data needs to get somewhere else; data from somewhere else needs to get to 1-2-3.” -Jim Manzi, 1991

Smothered by the CD blanket

  • Company: CompuServe Information Service
  • Born: 1969
  • Died: 1998 (acquired by AOL)
  • Cause of Death: AOL blanketed the world with its trial disks and offered inexpensive monthly rates while CompuServe still charged by the hour. It wasn’t known as “CompuBucks” for nothing! Then the Internet entered the picture, drawing more users away-and AOL did nothing to promote CompuServe’s stellar feature: its discussion forums.
  • Founder: Golden Unite
  • Most well-known product(s): CompuServe
  • Why we miss them: It was a grownup’s online service-a social network (actually, a lot of social networks, through its forums) long before FaceBook and LinkedIn were even imagined.
  • Lasting image/quote: “On December 29, 1994, CompuServe Information Service posted an electronic demand for royalty payments from companies that make graphic software for viewing pictures in the Graphic Interchange Format (GIF). GIF was developed by CompuServe in 1987 and is the most common way to store, view and transmit photographs and other graphic images; it became a standard because CompuServe encouraged its adoption by not charging a licensing fee. But GIF is based on a software algorithm patented by Unisys in 1985. Unisys notified CompuServe about infringement two years ago and the companies reached a licensing agreement in June 1994. Unisys is demanding royalty payments from dozens of companies other than CompuServe.” (New York Times, 1/5/95, C1; San Jose Mercury News, 1/5/95, 1F.)