Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

Summary: The recent death of Digital Equipment Corporation founder Ken Olsen is a reminder that it's tough to get to the top of the tech world but it's even tougher to stay there.

TOPICS: Hardware

 |  Image 6 of 10

  • Thumbnail 1
  • Thumbnail 2
  • Thumbnail 3
  • Thumbnail 4
  • Thumbnail 5
  • Thumbnail 6
  • Thumbnail 7
  • Thumbnail 8
  • Thumbnail 9
  • Thumbnail 10
  • Wang Laboratories always remained under the control of co-founder Dr An Wang and his family, from its inception in 1951 to the doctor's death in 1990.

    The company moved from typesetting equipment to the desktop calculator business in 1965 with the LOC-2, arguably the first of such devices to handle computing logarithms, which it achieved without the use of an integrated circuit. At the start of the 1970s, though, calculators began to be commoditised, and Dr Wang moved on to what were, at the time, extremely innovative word processors. They allowed text to be edited without requiring the retyping of entire pages.

    The word-processing business developed alongside minicomputers such as the Wang 2200 (pictured), which had the novel feature of a CRT monitor built into the same unit as the storage unit and keyboard. Released in 1973 and running Basic, it was in many ways an early example of the desktop computer.

    Dr Wang believed his company would one day overtake his bête noire, IBM. His VS range of minicomputers went some way towards this goal in the 1980s, but, ironically, early Wang PCs suffered from their lack of compatibility with IBM's rival system. Later, IBM-compatible Wang PCs were more successful. Ultimately, though, Wang's increasingly outdated focus on word-processing and an embarrassing 'vapourware' announcement in 1983 — in which Wang promised products that had not been started or completed — led to escalating losses.

    Dr Wang died in 1990, and the company turned towards industry-standard rather than proprietary software. In 1991 the company even began to resell IBM hardware. Wang Laboratories filed for bankruptcy protection the following year. It re-emerged in the mid-1990s as a network services firm rather than a computer company, and in 1999 it was bought by the Dutch firm Getronics.

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Along with Microsoft and Lotus, Ashton-Tate was one of the big three software companies of the 1980s. It began life as a garage outfit called Software Plus, Inc (SPI) in 1980 and went on to create the first major database managements system for microcomputers, dBase.

    An IBM-compatible version of dBase II came out in 1983 to great success, and in the same year the company became Ashton-Tate and went public. It released the C-written dBase III (opening screen for dBase III+ pictured above) in 1984, but later that year co-founder George Tate died of a heart attack. Company president David Cole briefly took over, but marketing man Ed Esber quickly succeeded him (Cole went to work for Ziff-Davis, which founded this publication).

    Esber led the company very successfully for seven years, but he became known for being litigious, particularly when it came to companies that released dBase clones. Large corporations kept on using dBase, but smaller businesses deserted the platform. The 1988 version of dBase IV was slow and unstable, but rather than fix the bugs, the company concentrated instead on its next planned product line. The update for dBase IV only came out in 1990, by which time sales were down drastically.

    Having turned down several merger opportunities — including with Microsoft and Symantec — Ashton-Tate finally merged with Borland in 1991. However, Microsoft introduced Access in 1992, trouncing dBase in the Windows marketplace.

    Photo credit: Colsen

  • The Commodore Portable Typewriter Company was founded in 1954. The company became Commodore Business Machines the following year, as Japanese typewriters had flooded the market, and moved into selling adding machines. Japanese adding machines flooded that particular market in the late 1960s, and then-named Commodore International moved into the electronic calculator business. The calculator market was, however, taken over by Texas Instruments in the mid-1970s, and Commodore went into PCs.

    The Commodore Personal Electronic Transactor (PET) came out in 1977 to an enthusiastic reception in the education sector, but it was 1981's VIC-20 — as endorsed in TV ads featuring Wiliam Shatner — that made Commodore a familiar brand in the home.

    It was that model's successor — 1982's Commodore 64 (pictured) — that remains the company's most enduring legacy. Already cheaper than rival 64K systems, the C64 enjoyed a price cut the following year, kicking off a pricing war in the home computer market. Commodore won: with 22 million sold, the C64 became the best-selling computer ever.

    In 1984, Commodore bought Amiga Corporation. Around the same time Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, who had just quit to form his own company, bought Atari from Warner Brothers and released the Atari ST as a rival to Amiga. The rivalry between Commodore and Atari continued through most of the remaining decade, but in the end the PC market was won by the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh platforms.

    Following several releases that failed to replicate the success of the C64, Commodore declared bankruptcy. The brand is now used by a completely different company, which sells an Atom-based netbook PC in a replica C64 shell.

    Photo credit: Bill Bertram

Topic: Hardware

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Digitals' problem wasn't so much letting technology pass by. It was the world's largest UNIX producer at one point. It was the first to produce a commercial 64-bit processor (remember Alpha?) and still OpenVMS clusters beat UNIX and Windows clustering... 25 years later. Two big mistakes.... no spotting the PC revolution, and no marketing!
  • What about CompuServe?

    Before the Internet took off, CompuServe was the place to be for microcomputer enthusiasts. It was head and shoulders above AOL. I'm not sure what happened, but I guess it just got killed off by the Internet.
    • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

      @nfordtchrpub CompuServe is still around. But ever since AOL bought them, it went down hill.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Surprised AOL and Compaq are not on the list. I'd only vaguely heard of Acorn...might have thought they were the people helping pimps buy houses if you'd asked.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    I must have missed Yahoo. It surely is a dead company walking. Maybe next year it will be on your list.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    if the purpose of this blog is to point out companies that are no longer here, than I do not see a problem, otherwise there are a few more companies that should be on the list:


    I know for a fact that AOl and Yahoo are still here, though these are shells of what they once were, in no way on top. I haven't heard anything about for a couple of years back when they were trying to be in direct competition with Google. Web of Trust lists as an untrusted site, but I don't know how realistic that is, considering WoT is opinion based, (and in IE9 lists igoogle as untrustworthy).

    Most of these were mentioned above, but just wanted to re-list them together and try and get a handle on whether or not the blog lists dead companies or once greats
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Memories! Wang, Ashton-Tate...
    • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen


      I still use WordStar for DOS or a work-alike Z.EXE that came with XTree on my tri-core AMD computer every day.
  • Unisys

    What gave you the idea that Unisys no longer sells hardware? My paycheck is still generated on a Unisys mainframe. Their Clearpath Libra series supports both the Burroughs MCP and the Sperry OS 2200.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    I was beginning to wonder when a Wang would pop up.

    The Tandy name is still alive and well, in Australia where it is the name used for RadioShack stores.
    • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

      But in reality, Tandy were taken-over by Dick Smith Electronics some years ago and Dick Smith is really the major name. However, in their early days, Tandy were very important to the development of home computing in Australia.
      • To be more precise

        @ptorning, tandy was owned by Woolworths Limited, which also owns Dick Smith Electronics, but only rebranded the Tandy stores under Dick Smith Electronics a few years ago.
        Tim Cook
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    As a past employee of Digital, I found that many of my peers had moved on to Sun Microsystems, a more recent company missing from this article. Although many have found a place in Oracle, some of the key innovators from Sun have recently left, fueling the new and upcoming technology companies of tomorrow.

    Case in point..., as Sun Microsystems combined its real estate holdings with Oracle, they left Menlo Park, CA, just recently acquired by Facebook. The same was true of many of Digital's campuses in the greater Boston area.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Every tech company will eventually fall, in fact, all companies eventually do for one reason or another. Just like people and nations, companies have a life cycle. Today's hot company will be tomorrow's corpse. Tech has a shorter life cycle than any other sector. Personally, I can't wait until Apple folds.