25 computer products that refuse to die

Whatever happened to these onetime tech staples?

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'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that some of these products are still with us at all -- and 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.

Hardware Holdouts

Dot-Matrix Printers

What they were: The printer you probably owned if you had a PC in the house anytime 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, ink-jet 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, ink-jet 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 ink-jet one.

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 ink-jet and laser models can't match. Because the dot-matrix print head hits the paper with a hard whack, they're perfect for printing multipart 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.

Hayes Modems

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 has been 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 Hayes was liquidated in 1999.

Current whereabouts: In 1999, Zoom Telephonics Inc. -- 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 that's a pretty obscure fate for a once-mighty brand -- I didn't know it still existed at all until I checked.

MiniDisc

What it was: Sony Corp.'s format for pint-size recordable audio discs, introduced in 1992. The idea was that it combined the best qualities of compact discs and cassette tapes into one high-quality, portable package that could contain up to 80 minutes of music.

What happened: MiniDisc found some fans -- it was popular in Asia and among musicians. But it never gained much support from the music industry, so few prerecorded albums were available. And within a few years of its introduction, it found itself competing with digital downloads. While Sony introduced NetMD, a MiniDisc variant that supported MP3, the company made it remarkably unappealing by adding copy protection to your tracks as you transferred them to disc. Why would you choose NetMD when a multitude of players, such as those from Diamond and Creative Technology Ltd., let MP3s be MP3s? Good question!

Current whereabouts: In 2004, Sony upgraded the MiniDisc format with Hi-MD, a higher-capacity, more flexible standard that was backward-compatible with MiniDiscs. It garnered some admiration among audiophiles for the high quality of its recording capabilities. But as of 2009, only one Hi-MD device remains in Sony's lineup, the MZ-M200. It's aimed at musicians and journalists who need to make recordings on the go. The moment it disappears, we can officially declare MiniDisc dead.

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