Long before Facebook and Twitter, well before even Friendster and MySpace, before the first dotcom bubble burst, in the eons before Google was a glint in anyone’s eye, there was the first web. In comparison to everything that’s come after it, you could call it Web 1.0 or perhaps even just “the dark ages.” But for anyone born before, say, 1990, this was the dawn of our now-ubiquitous digital world. But as the digital giants of yesteryear have been replaced by the now-ubiquitous Facebook and Google, how many are still in play now?
The last 20 years of web history are a fascinating look at today’s biggest companies and yesterday’s biggest has-beens. Some imploded. Others were sold or merged. Some faded quietly away, and others are still quietly chugging along, making money — not Apple money, but enough — for someone somewhere. Here’s a run-down of the fates of a dozen of the biggest names from twenty years ago.
As the web boomed in the mid-90s, so too did the need to search it. Search engines launched all over the place, and AltaVista quickly claimed to have one of the largest indexes and most advanced set of search tools out there. But the landscape was competitive, and its star quickly faded. The service was sold and resold a number of times until finally being shuttered in 2013.
Launched: December, 1995
Ended: July, 2013
Began as: A search engine
Ended as: A search engine that couldn’t keep up with Google
“Digital asserts that its new software is ‘an order of magnitude’ faster than current methods for finding information on the Web, which now consists of more than 30 million electronic pages of information stored on tens of thousands of different computers around the world, with thousands of new pages being added each day.” The New York Times, December 18, 1995.
“AltaVista was supposed to raise $300 million in December 1999 in an initial public offering, but canceled the I.P.O. after the technology stock market started to implode. In 1995, when AltaVista made its debut, the company said it was processing 2.5 million search requests a day. Today, Google, processes 5.1 billion searches each day. It’s a fascinating story from greatness to the end. If you want to learn more, you can always Google it.” The New York Times, July 1, 2013.
Before easy blogging platforms and sites like MySpace and Tumblr, anyone who wanted a say on the web had to go create their own page from scratch. Millions did. And for all those long-ago teenagers to post their thoughts for free (even a young Mark Zuckerberg), there were hosts like Angelfire.
Ended: Still in operation
Began as: Combination web hosting and medical transcription service
Currently: A web hosting service owned by Lycos
“Some services will post a site at no cost. Angelfire.com, for example, will do it free, but your domain name will appear as http://www.angelfire.com with two more names, or directories, after .com that you select from a pull-down menu. You choose the first directory based on your state or interest, like “NY” or “Pokemon,” then enter the text you want for the second directory. (You could, for example, end up with http://www.angelfire.com/pokemon/lover.) Although the result is a domain name that may not necessarily reflect your business or interests, your site is online free.” The New York Times, March 16, 2000.
“When we say something follows the ‘90s webpage aesthetic, we’re talking about the eyesores created using these three hosting services. Amazingly, they’re actually still around: Tripod and Angelfire were acquired by the search engine Lycos in 1998.” Bustle, December 29, 2014.
If one company defined the early and mid 1990s, it was America Online. With its friendly, easy graphics, it made all the decade’s worst clichés — getting onto the information superhighway and surfing the world wide web — simple and accessible to the new-to-computers masses. And when it went to a flat $20 per month pricing structure in 1996, it signaled the end of the limited pay-by-the-minute usage era and the baby steps toward an always-online future. By 1997, half of all US homes with internet access used AOL to get it.
Ended: Still in operation
Began as: America Online, a dial-up ISP
Currently: A dial-up ISP (remarkably) and digital media company, parent company of sites like Engadget and The Huffington Post
“A smaller competitor, America Online of Vienna, Va., which has about a million subscribers, also offers access to Usenet on the Internet and formed four new divisions earlier this month to explore new network services.” The New York Times, September 29, 1994.
“Wall Street was unhappy not only that earnings were below expectations but that AOL has had trouble showing consistent, reliable profits. Jan Dawson … said that while AOL’s strategy for advertising produced revenue, the profit margin was insufficient. ‘AOL’s story is that it is building this marvelous ad technology stack that will be profitable, but it provides precious little evidence quarter to quarter that this is actually happening.'” The New York Times, May 7, 2014.
Search was not always an intuitive process. Not only were the sites that did it an awkward amalgamation of manually-created indexes and early web-crawlers, but also the way in which users had to look for terms was Boolean and very specific. That left room for Jeeves: your friendly digital butler, who could parse a natural-language search (a plain question, like “How much rain falls on the plain in Spain each year?”) and try to give you an answer and a useful set of links.
Launched: June, 1996
Ended: Still in operation
Began as: Ask Jeeves, a natural language search engine
Currently: Ask.com, a question-based general community/information site
“A good example is the search service “Ask Jeeves.” They’ve put personality together with functionality—adding some human beings into the process. [Ed. Note—The personality works so well Macy’s even had a Jeeves balloon in its Thanksgiving Day Parade.] Maybe it doesn’t net more results than Google, but it’s more fun and you feel like you’re part of the process. Basically we’re talking about the difference between talking to a librarian and just going directly to the card catalog. A good librarian is always worth talking to.” Line Zine, Winter 2001.
“Whenever you go to install Java on a Windows machine, you have to resist the urge to blindly click through the prompts to get the installation up and running. If you do, then you’re also going to install an annoying Ask toolbar on your system—and make Ask.com your default search provider in your browser. Yuck.” PC Mag, March 6, 2015.
By the mid-to-late 1990s AOL had clearly won the home ISP game, but in the early half of the decade, the market was robust and competitive. CompuServe was the first of the widespread home retail ISPs that people could dial into, and they were going strong until AOL’s marketing blitz, easy graphics, and flat fees finally did them in.
Launched: 1979 (to consumers)
Ended: June 30, 2009
Began as: Compu-Serv Network, in 1969. H&R Block acquired them in 1980.
Ended as: A division of AOL (acquired in 1998)
“That is not to say that Compuserve does not have location, location and location. Compuserve is the most international of the Big Three services, and it can be reached by a local phone call in more than 700 cities. If I had to choose just one commercial online service, I would choose Compuserve for the depth and breadth of its information base.” The New York Times, November 29, 1994.
“CompuServe’s text-centric interface and by-the-minute fees eventually made it an easy target for AOL, which offered a prettier face and unlimited, all-you-can-use service for a low monthly fee. … CompuServe struck back with flat-rate plans and mass mailings of its own, but it was too late. Both services were overtaken by the internet by the end of the 1990s.” Wired, September 24, 2009.
Excite was one of the many search engine/web indexing sites that sprang up in the early 1990s as the web grew exponentially. It morphed into what we would now consider a content portal and became one of the most frequently visited sites on the entire internet. In the heady bubble days at the end of the decade, it merged with a fledgling venture backed by all the cable ISPs — a $6.7 billion deal that would later become known as one of the most disastrous mergers in business history.
Launched: December, 1995
Ended: Technically still in operation, after being sold to Ask Jeeves in 2004. Currently operated by Mindspark.
Began as: A search engine and early personal web portal
Currently: A web portal with all of the latest and greatest features 2003 has to offer.
“The deal brought together Excite Inc., which has evolved from a simple search engine into the Internet’s sixth most heavily trafficked site, and the At Home Corporation, a high-speed Internet service aimed at cable television subscribers, in what the two companies described as a merger. … The deal valued Excite at $106.27 a share … In raising the stakes that high, At Home is hoping that it will be able to exploit Excite’s position as one of the leading Internet destinations to attract subscribers to its own service.” The New York Times, January 20, 1999.
“So why is Excite@Home in ruins? Blame it on a lethal combination of management missteps, clashing egos, and old-fashioned greed. In the end, the cable companies that backed Excite@Home and took more than $1 billion from investors to finance it decided to walk away, leaving public investors to pay the price. Cox Communications and Comcast, which had pledged to keep all of their broadband customers on Excite@Home’s network through June, 2002, negotiated early exits so they could provide their own service.” Bloomberg BuisnessWeek, December 16, 2001
When everyone needed to have a webpage, everyone went to GeoCities. It wasn’t sure how to handle the whole idea of internet community, at first dividing content up into “neighborhoods” where you and your neighbors should ideally have the same core interest (like science fiction or sports). Yahoo acquired the company for $3.5 billion in 1999, which seemed like a good idea at the time… until eventually, communities like MySpace would run away with the core idea and leave once-dominant GeoCities aging all but forgotten in the virtual nursing home of the internet.
Launched: December, 1995
Ended: October 26, 2009
Began as: A web hosting service
Ended as: A web hosting service owned by Yahoo
“The service provides on-line tools to set up a page and says that a newcomer can have a page up and running in 10 minutes. Each user receives two free megabytes of server space — the equivalent of 25 to 50 pages of text and graphics — and can get more for a fee. … Geocities says that it has 450,000 homesteaders and that it adds an average of 5,000 new members every day. David Bohnett, the chief executive of Geocities, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif., expects to have a million members by October.” The New York Times, March 17, 1997.
“GeoCities hit hard times after the merger. Eventually, the ‘home page’ fad was surpassed by blogs and social-networking sites—and the fact that you’d once set up a GeoCities page became an embarrassing confession rather than a sign of your early-adopter savvy. But that narrative sells GeoCities short. Sure, the site was ugly, and, of course, Yahoo paid too much for it … But GeoCities deserves much more credit than we give it, because it was the first big venture built on what is now hailed as the defining feature of the Web 2.0 boom — ‘user-generated content.'” Slate, October 27, 2009.
Lycos, like AltaVista and Excite, was another of the search-engine-cum-web-portals that vied to be everyone’s homepage in the early 90s, when consumers first started pouring onto the web. However, unlike many of the others, it did the early on buying-up of smaller properties, rather than being bought, and is still — after several changes of hands — in business today.
Ended: Still in operation
Began as: Lycos, a search engine and web portal
Currently: Lycos, a search engine, web portal, and internet company based in India
“Lycos became the first Internet search engine to go public yesterday, ending the day with a market value of almost $300 million and demonstrating to investors that Internet stocks are still the hot ticket on Wall Street.” CNet, April 3, 1996.
“While the tech press likes to constantly move on to the next big thing, seemingly irrelevant names like Lycos keep quietly chugging along as apparently viable businesses. Under relatively new ownership, Lycos seems keen to make that push back to mainstream relevance in 2013, and we’ll be keeping an eye on its new search product to see how it fares.” The Next Web, December 27, 2012
When the web suddenly became a thing anyone with a dial-up ISP could navigate to, Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice… because there wasn’t really a choice. They got there first, beating Microsoft to the punch. The company had products besides the browser, but it was always the best-known. But although the team behind Netscape Navigator introduced several crucial features to the modern web, upstarts like Mozilla (Firefox) and Microsoft (Internet Explorer) ended up winning that battle… for a while.
Ended: Acquired by AOL in 1999; browser supported until 2008
Began as: Mosaic Communications (browser: Mosaic Netscape)
Ended as/currently: Netscape is still a brand AOL plops on a few products/sites in its line
“Browsers are programs that allow computer users to view and navigate through electronic documents on the Internet’s World Wide Web, one of the most popular and fastest-growing segments of the global computer network. A few years ago there were only a handful of browsers, and all agreed to adhere to a set of standard rules for displaying information. Then came Netscape, and the rules changed. Netscape started adding features without waiting for approval from the standards committees. Netscape allowed Web developers to do fancier things with text, like showing boldface type, centering and blinking ext. Consumers loved it, developers loved it, and Netscape quickly left all its rivals in the dust.” The New York Times, January 30, 1996.
“While Netscape didn’t stand the test of time quite like its chief rival Internet Explorer has, its open-source transition into Mozilla did eventually birth Firefox — a browser success story in and of itself. But Netscape’s precipitous rise and fall in those early internet days wasn’t without lasting effects: Its brief stint at the top and tense rivalry with Microsoft laid much of the groundwork for innovation in the browsing space.” Engadget, May 10, 2014.
Prodigy, like CompuServe, was an early dial-up product that home users could use to access certain services. The company transitioned to a regular ISP in the 1994-1996 era, but — like CompuServe — ultimately lost out to the bigger, louder AOL.
Launched: 1988 (regionally), 1990 (nationally)
Ended: In slow motion between 2005 and 2011
Began as: Dial-up destination and later ISP that sold access to the internet writ large
Ended as: A segment of AT&T (although internationally, Prodigy still continues as an ISP)
“For commercial services like Prodigy, there are business opportunities in giving customers access to the Internet and in setting up sites or “nodes” on the Internet for use by businesses that want to offer product information, provide services and let customers shop electronically. Dozens of private companies have sprung up in recent months to set up such sites.” The New York Times, September 29, 1994.
“At the time it was finally shuttered, Prodigy was an absolute dinosaur technologically. Built from systems that were state-of-the art at the dawn of the 1980s, and existing on top of a complex and proprietary network infrastructure that was always separate from the Internet, Prodigy existed in spite of itself.” The Atlantic, July 12, 2014.
Tripod knew early what later companies like Facebook and Tumblr (now Yahoo) would make a killing on: target the young. It started as a service “by and for college students” that also offered personal website building services. Quickly, however, it became clear that college students do not actually pay for services, and that the business was all in the web hosting.
Ended: Still in operation
Began as: Tripod, a personal web host
Currently: Tripod, a personal web host owned by Lycos
“‘The AOL technology architecture is outdated,’ said Bo Peabody, chief executive of Tripod, which is based in Williamstown, Mass. ‘We are taking cues from their position as a pioneer, but we believe the open nature of the Web makes us more appealing down the road.'” The New York Times, March 17, 1997.
“Balazy says that Tripod is still ‘doing really well,’ with over 15 years’ worth of content and 10s of millions of pages indexed by Google. ‘It’s the little engine that keeps on chugging, in the sense that we keep signing up new users every day without making a push on the marketing side.'” The Next Web, December 27, 2012
Before “I dunno, Google it” became part of our everyday communal lexicon, everyone who was anyone (*at my high school) knew that Yahoo was the best way to find out what you needed to know. Yahoo, too, became carried along in the wake of Google’s massive, game-changing search tide as the century turned, but of all the names we remember from before we could literally party like it was 1999, Yahoo has remained the most sucessful. Yahoo has consistently been in the top three sites visited on the web every year since 1997, bolstered in recent years by its acquisitions of Flickr and Tumblr.
Launched: March, 1995
Ended: Still in operation
Began as: A search engine/web directory and early landing portal
Currently: A web portal and general internet media company, with its own news division as well as parent company of many other sites
“Whatever the future for portals, Yahoo! is currently in rude health – averaging 95 million page views a day in March and reporting a 200 per cent increase in revenues in April over the quarter of a year ago. Its statistics show it as continuing to have the largest audience of any web site or online service with more than 30 million unique users in March.” BBC News, June 5, 1998.
“Yahoo, which has long been considered one of the technology world’s biggest messes, burdened by years of mismanagement, has improved under the two-and-a-half-year tenure of Marissa Mayer as chief executive. What once was a mishmash of businesses has become, in some analysts’ eyes, a more focused company with a clearer vision of its future.” The New York Times, January 28, 2015.