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

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  • 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

  • Tandy began life in 1919, in the business of leather goods — making it something of a US analogy to Finland's Nokia, which started off making paper. Along with Commodore (another entry in this list), Tandy was at the forefront of the PC industry in its time.

    The 1977 TRS-80, sold through Tandy's Radio Shack stores, was one of the first popular personal computers. The company later moved to IBM compatibility, and its PCs' video and sound capabilities led the market in the early 1980s. However, the introduction in the early 1990s of VGA graphics cards and Sound Blaster audio cards killed this competitive advantage. Tandy even moved into notebooks for a time from the end of the 1980s, with products including the 1400 (pictured).

    Tandy sold its PC business to AST in 1993, and the new owners soon shut down their newly purchased manufacturing facilities. Radio Shack began to sell other brands of PC, and the Tandy brand disappeared for good in 2000.

    Photo credit: Retep412

  • Acorn was founded in 1978 by Clive Sinclair colleague Chris Curry and his friend Hermann Hauser. The company was actually called CPU Ltd, with Acorn Computer Ltd the trading name for its PC business — CPU also had a consultancy business.

    The £80 Acorn Microcomputer was launched in early 1979 for engineering and laboratory use. Four more iterations followed, with the last Acorn rack-mounted product being 1983's System 5. Meanwhile, Sinclair had launched his ZX80 system, prompting Curry to target the home computing market with the Atom (which is unrelated to Intel's processor family of the same name). Acorn then wanted to provide a 16-bit successor to the Atom, and found a willing partner in the BBC.

    The BBC was keen on launching a computer literacy drive, as were the Department of Industry and the Department of Education and Science. Throughout the 1980s, the Acorn-made BBC Micro series of microcomputers became a British staple, and Acorn became extremely profitable.

    At the same time, Acorn decided to create a business computer using its existing technology. This became the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) project, which now manifests itself in the architecture used in almost all mobile phone processors today. However, Acorn's Electron — a competitor to Sinclair's ZX Spectrum — suffered supply issues in the Christmas 1983 period, and the company was also spending much of its resources on development. Acorn's finances hit a rocky period and, in 1985, the Italian firm Olivetti took a controlling share.

    Acorn went on to work alongside Apple on ARM, which was spun off in 1990. It also enjoyed some success in the set-top box market, and had an educational computer joint venture with Apple called Xemplar. However, ARM became much more successful. The Acorn brand disappeared in 1999, as the company became a silicon developer for digital TVs.

    Photo credit: Stuart Brady

Topic: Hardware

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  • 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.