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Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

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.

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Topic: Hardware
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1 of 10 Andy Smith/ZDNet

The recent death of Digital Equipment Corporation's founder Ken Olsen is a reminder that getting to the top of the tech world isn't easy but staying there is even harder. ZDNet UK's David Meyer takes a look back at 10 firms that were once leaders in the field but let technology pass them by.

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)
DEC's PDP-8 may not look so small now, but its relatively compact size made it a bestseller in the mid-1960s — the company sold 50,000 of its 'minicomputer', which was a record-breaker at the time. DEC became the largest private employer in the state of Massachusetts.

In the late 1970s, the company's VAX-11 32-bit minicomputer served as a rival to IBM's mainframes. However, a decade later saw the rise of the 32-bit microcomputer, and Digital's products lost their cachet. Its 1998 merger with Compaq was the biggest in the history of the IT industry. Four years later, Compaq itself merged with HP, leaving the DEC/Digital brand as little more than a memory.

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Sperry was founded in 1910 as a manufacturer of navigational equipment. It later diversified into military aircraft components, including the ball turret guns used on World War II bombers. After the war, it turned its attention to computers.

The company bought typewriter-maker Remington Rand, which had previously picked up the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC) — founded by the Eniac inventors — in 1955. What was by then known as Sperry Rand went on develop EMCC's successful Universal Automatic Computer (Univac) series of mainframes and peripherals — including the Sperry Univac 1100/80 Computer, pictured above — which remained an industry mainstay for decades.

In 1986, Sperry Corporation merged with its competitor Burroughs Corporation to become Unisys, which now provides services rather than making machines. Non-computing divisions of Sperry, which produced such diverse items as electric razors and manure spreaders, were sold off. The only former Sperry division to retain that name is Sperry Marine, which — in a neat piece of symmetry — makes navigation equipment.

Photo credit: Erick M Griffin

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CDC was formed in 1957 as a spin-off of Sperry. It started off by selling memory systems, but in 1958 the now-legendary Seymour Cray signed up. The company released what could be described as the first minicomputer — the 160A — in 1960, but its attention soon turned to producing the fastest computers available.

The CDC 6600 (pictured) came out in 1964, trouncing the competition. It was at least 10 times faster than any rival computer, with a standard mathematical operations rate of 500 kiloflops. The 6600 inspired a series of retaliatory tactics from IBM — the ACS-1, which never made it to production, and the non-existent Model 92 — that may have failed, but nonetheless hit sales of CDC's machine through an early campaign of 'fear, uncertainty and doubt' (FUD).

Although Cray left in 1972, CDC continued to dominate the world of supercomputing during the first half of that decade. After the first Cray-1 was installed in 1976, CDC's lead in the field slipped. The company tried to move into other markets, gaining considerable success from sales of high-performance hard drives. However, it pulled out of hard drives in 1988, and what was left of CDC ended up being merged into BT's Global Services unit soon after.

Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson

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ICL started off as an initiative of the Wilson government — specifically technology minister Tony Benn — to create a strong British rival to the likes of IBM. Formed from various smaller companies in 1968, it began life with two mainframe product lines: the IBM System/360-compatible System 4 and the ICT 1900 series, which was not compatible with any other company's products.

ICL launched a new line, the 2900 Series, in 1974. Running the Virtual Machine Environment (VME) operating system, these machines were able to emulate both of their predecessors. The ICL Series 39 range of mainframes and minicomputers, introduced in 1985, included major hardware advances such as the use of optical fibres for central interconnect.

In 1984, ICL was taken over by Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) in a move that foresaw the convergence of computers and telecoms. Subsequent acquisitions included that of Nokia Data in 1991, taking ICL into the PC and desktop software markets.

However, ICL's long-standing partnership with Fujitsu became more permanent around that time, with the Japanese company buying up 80 percent of ICL in 1990. When Fujitsu Siemens was formed in 1999, the ICL brand was finally dropped from its PC and server lines.

Photo credit: HendrikHAM

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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It's easy to forget how important GeoCities was, in the days before WordPress and social networks. Founded in 1994 as Beverley Hills Internet (BHI), the original version of the service was a web directory that let users place their own pages in virtual 'cities', corresponded to their subject matter.

Community elements such as chat were added, and at the end of 1995 the service became known as GeoCities — previously it was called GeoPages. Adverts were first placed on people's pages in 1997. Later that year, GeoCities got its millionth user. In 1998 the company went public, and the following year it was the third-most-visited site on the internet.

Not long before the dotcom bubble burst, GeoCities was taken over in 1999 by Yahoo for $3.57bn. The new owners instituted new terms of service, claiming ownership over all content put on GeoCities pages. Users left in droves, and Yahoo performed a dramatic U-turn. The service was unprofitable and stayed so, despite Yahoo's 2001 attempt at a launching a paid premium version of the service. Yahoo closed GeoCities down in 2009, and it remains one of the prime examples of a popular service failing due to its inability to make money.

Screenshot: Internet Archive Wayback Machine

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