Who can recall the fallen greats of the dog-eat-dog tech world?
The history of digital technology is littered with the corpses of companies that didn’t make the cut
Long gone logos (from top): Digital Equipment Corporation; Sun; Silicon Graphics; Netscape; Burroughs; RCA; and Control Data Corporation
They were some of the biggest, most powerful, most innovative and most influential companies of the digital age. Many were big Irish employers at one time, too. But they have vanished.
The technology sector changes so swiftly that many companies that dominated the sector even just a decade ago are now faint and fast-fading memories. Ironically, in some cases the very trends they pioneered led to their demise, as they failed to keep up, change fast enough, or realise a long-stable market was going, going, gone.
Sometimes they were acquired by a more successful rival. Others simply imploded.
Where did they go? And how many of these do you remember? For better or worse, a generation is entering the job market for whom some of these iconic tech names and brands fail to ring a bell.
The pioneers in the 1960s
The eight largest computer companies in this early decade of computing were Burroughs, IBM, Honeywell, NCR Corporation, Control Data Corporation, General Electric, RCA and Univac. They were known colloquially as Snow White (IBM) and the Seven Dwarves (the rest).
Only one name – IBM – survives as a major and instantly recognisable computing player today, though NCR was re-established as a standalone point-of-sale equipment brand in 1996 by AT&T, which had bought it some years before.
Honeywell still makes business and consumer electronics but not computers (it bought out General Electric’s computing division in the 1970s, then Bull bought Honeywell’s computing division in 1989).
Univac was sold to Remington Rand, which was acquired by mainframe maker Sperry. Sperry acquired RCA’s computing division.
Burroughs merged with Sperry in the 1980s and became Unisys, which continues today, though it’s not a name recognised by many outside the business technology world.
The company’s computing business was eventually sold to Syntegra, a division of BT, in the 1990s.
Digital Equipment Corporation
Digital Equipment Corporation began its rise in the 1960s, and by the 1970s was a major computing player, supplying powerful high end microcomputers. Its PDP computers would form the first hubs of a new military research experiment that would one day become the internet.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall early on for DEC, when founder Ken Olson in 1977 famously derided the move towards smaller computers with the comment, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”.
Wrong. Though Digital would remain a major computing force through the late 1980s (and employ thousands in research, services and sales in Galway and Dublin), it was sold to PC-maker Compaq in 1998.
It wasn’t a good idea. Compaq consequently struggled, and was bought by HP in 2002.
Sun and Silicon Graphics
Founded in 1982, and emerging out of Stanford University, Sun (from Stanford University Network) was profitable from its first quarter and became a giant in computing when its high end workstations and servers became backbone computers of the dotcom “bubble” era.
At the height of the bubble, Sun’s (in)famous slogan was, “We put the dot in .com”, a marketing ploy it must have regretted as the dotcom crash created negative feeling for companies in the sector, and engulfed the very market that had built Sun into a powerhouse.
As desktops grew powerful enough to take on, cheaply, the tasks once performed by workstations, Sun struggled.
Once touted as a potential acquirer of then-beleaguered Apple, the company rejected a takeover offer from IBM and was eventually bought by Oracle, where the name is retained on Oracle hardware products.
SGI also made powerful servers and workstations that were widely used for 3D computer animation.
The company suffered a similar fate to that of Sun, as cheap networked or standalone desktops became able to perform the same tasks. It was struggling by the mid-2000s, went into bankruptcy, and was eventually acquired by Rackable Systems. One of its buildings now houses the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
The height of coolness for those lucky enough to be online in the mid-1990s was the animated shooting stars whizzing past the Netscape logo in the corner of your internet browser. Netscape Navigator (eventually, Communicator) was used by 90 per cent of those online back then.
The company, co-founded by Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen, was born out of the Mosaic Corporation at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in the University of Illinois. Its first product was intended to be a Nintendo game, but ended up being the browser almost everyone would use.
Netscape’s stellar IPO in 1995 launched an era of mega-valuations for internet companies without any profits.
But Netscape Navigator ultimately lost out to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and Netscape became a division within AOL in 2000. The Netscape browser lived on until 2007, but was then no longer updated.
The Mozilla organisation developed the code for Netscape and now produces the Firefox browser. But many of today’s web users have never heard of Netscape.
The ones that didn’t disappear
On the flip side, some technology companies have successfully ridden out change – even over a century, in the case of IBM. Most of these have passed through at least one moment where they’ve barely hung on, before their fortunes improved.
Amongst those are companies we recognise as some of the biggest tech payers today – IBM, of course, which re-engineered itself successfully more than once, and, notably at the moment, Apple, which spent much of the 1990s on what observers always called the Apple Death Watch, so imminent seemed its demise.
What enabled IBM to march on, but not Burroughs? And Apple to thrive, but not Radio Shack or Sun? Inspired and steely leadership, of course, but also a mix of luck, a performing workforce and a willingness to terminate projects or entire company divisions if the future for them looks bleak. Overall: an ability to rethink the company and send it off in new directions, at speed.
As a new wave of technology approaches – a move away from personal computing to internet-based activity and net-connected devices, wearable computing, sensors, robotics, and biotech – which of today’s big names will survive?
Dominating companies with strong roots in the wave that is ending, such as Microsoft, Dell and HP, may be vulnerable. Predictions for Facebook and Twitter vary widely. Google, with interests dispersed across many sectors, seems a good bet to roll over into the next wave despite ongoing challenges to its original business models in search and advertising.
And Apple and IBM? Given their form so far, they may well be the source of tomorrow’s home robots, net-enabled apparel, or systems for managing DNA replication. It’s all to play for.