Google, Apple and even Microsoft are some of the most respected tech brands of the decade. However, sadly, no brand is guaranteed eternal health.

For example, while the two most powerful tech trademarks of the mid-1980s, Compaq and Lotus, are both still around, they're in a greatly diminished form.

The brands in this story haven't just lost a little of their lustre. Most were once among the most respected names in technology, but ran into financial hardship and got sold (often repeatedly) to new owners who were usually mostly interested in strip-mining whatever goodwill the brands retained with the public.

If you ever loved any of the names in this article - and chances are that you once had a high opinion of at least a few of them - prepare to feel glum.

12. Commodore

What it was: Jack Tramiel's groundbreaking computer company. In the 1970s and 1980s, it released one of the first PCs (the PET 2001), the best-selling PC of all time (the Commodore 64), and (after Tramiel left) one of the best PCs ever (the Amiga). But post-Tramiel management eventually ran the company into the ground. It went belly-up in 1994.

What it became: Commdore's golden age may have been a quarter-century ago, but the name remains recognisable enough that multiple companies have acquired it with giddy visions of using it to launch new product lines.

Germany's ESCOM and the Netherlands' Tulip both did so; both quickly gave up.

Most recently, a company called Commodore Gaming revived the nameplate yet again for a line of high-end Windows desktops, but its current site is almost entirely devoted to old Commodore 64 games which are now playable on the Wii.

Bottom line: The Commodore line of computers has now died at least four times. And yes, I did consider giving Commodore's still-extant Amiga brand its own slot on this list, but I'm too confused by its current status. Maybe you can explain it to me?

11. Heathkit

What it was: I'm too young to have ever built a Heathkit during their glory days, but I certainly remember wanting to put one together.

There was a time when there was no better way to establish your geek-cred than to assemble a Heathkit radio, TV, stereo system, or other piece of electronic gadgetry, and doing it yourself saved you money, too.

When the personal computer revolution came along, Heathkit became a significant manufacturer of early PCs, too, leading to its 1979 purchase by Zenith.

But increasingly sophisticated, miniaturised electronics made it tough to save money by assembling a kit rather than buying a ready-made item.

In 1992, Heathkit stopped selling kits.

What it became: Heathkit, which like many of the companies in this story has gone through repeated changes in ownership, is still around.

Its current name is Heathkit Educational Systems, and it sells training materials for the PC, telecommunications, and life sciences industries.

The vestigial 'kit' in its name serves as a reminder that it's quite literally not the Heathkit it used to be.

NEXT PAGE: Bell & Howell

  1. We loved these brands once, but not so much now
  2. Bell & Howell
  3. AT&T
  4. Napster
  5. Netscape

While Google, Microsoft and Apple might be respected names in technology now, there is no guarantee of eternal health. We look at 12 big names that ran into financial hardship and got sold, causing the firms to lose their way.

10. Bell & Howell

What it was: Incorporated in 1907, Bell & Howell was a major manufacturer of imaging equipment (from Charlie Chaplin's movie camera to the slide projector at your school) as well as microfilm products.

This later business eventually led to it getting into the online services business. Even if you never bought any of its products, the name rang a bell, and suggested sturdy, reliable quality.

What it became: The information-services part of B&H is now a perfectly respectable company called ProQuest. And Kodak owns Böwe Bell & Howell, which makes scanners.

But the once-great brand name has otherwise been turned over to a licencing company that lets third parties slap it on pretty much everything except for the products it was once associated with.

You can buy 'Bell & Howell' laptop bags, razors and headphones, as well as a pseudo-hearing aid hawked on late-night TV and a pest-repellent device. It's undignified, I tell you.

9. Westinghouse

What it was: With origins dating to 1886, Westinghouse was one of the greatest American conglomerates - Pepsi to General Electric's Coke.

Among its dizzying array of businesses: electrical equipment, nuclear power plant equipment, aircraft engines, air conditioning, elevators, refrigerators and other appliances, gas turbines, locomotives and robots.

In 1995, however, it bought CBS, changed its name to CBS Corporation, and began to sell off its non-broadcasting businesses.

What it became: Bits and pieces of Westinghouse still exist - if you need to build a nuclear plant, you might want to give it a call, and there are still White-Westinghouse appliances.

But Westinghouse is now primarily a shell company that licences its name out to other manufacturers who want a familiar-sounding nameplate for their products.

You can buy Westinghouse TVs and monitors, doorbells, light bulbs and photo frames. But there is no real 'Westinghouse' - it's just a logo for rent.

8. AltaVista

What it was: AltaVista was the first blockbuster search engine - a remarkable piece of technology that began as a Digital Equipment Corporation research project and became the Google of its era.

In fact, when Google came along the easiest way to explain it was to say that it was like AltaVista, only even better.

What it became: When brands get sold, they usually get damaged in the process. AltaVista had five owners in five years: Digital (1995-1998), Compaq (1998-1999), CMGI (1999-2003), Overture (2003) and Yahoo (2003-present).

It grew less relevant with each change of hands; if you weren't aware it's still with us today, I'm not surprised. But here it is.

The About AltaVista page boasts that it's "a leading provider of search services and technology" and that it "continues to advance internet search with new technologies and features designed to improve the search experience for consumers".

As far as I can tell, though, AltaVista results are slightly rehashed variants of what Yahoo gives you for the same queries. Using it is like visiting an old friend who's been lobotomised.


  1. We loved these brands once, but not so much now
  2. Bell & Howell
  3. AT&T
  4. Napster
  5. Netscape

While Google, Microsoft and Apple might be respected names in technology now, there is no guarantee of eternal health. We look at 12 big names that ran into financial hardship and got sold, causing the firms to lose their way.

7. AT&T

What it was: A telephone service company founded by the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, in 1875.

It went on to become synonymous with phones and phone service in the US - and was broken up into a long-distance company and separate 'Baby Bell' local-service companies as the result of a 1982 agreement after it was sued under US antitrust law.

What it became: AT&T is the current name of the former SBC, the telecommunications giant which ended up owning half of the Baby Bells.

It adopted the brand when it acquired AT&T in 2005. I thought it was an odd name change at the time, since the name AT&T brings to mind associations of the telephone's old, monopolistic, land-line past, not its high-speed wireless future.

The name may be venerable, but it doesn't evoke warm and fuzzy feelings. I can't prove it, but my gut tells me that the company's current subpar reputation - among iPhone owners, at least - is at least slightly crummier than it would have been if it had kept the SBC name.

But AT&T is also on this list - despite still being attached to one of the largest and most successful companies in America - because its current use underscores the completely ephemeral nature of branding in the telecommunications industry.

AT&T may have been around as a name for 135 years, but it's nothing more than three letters and an ampersand.

That was proven when hundreds of AT&T Wireless stores expensively rebranded themselves as Cingular stores when Cingular bought AT&T's wireless arm... and then expensively re-rebranded themselves as AT&T less than three years later.

6. CompuServe

What it was: The dominant online service of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a classy operation, but it was eventually overtaken by AOL  and then acquired by it in 1997.

What it became: AOL plunked down $1.2bn for CompuServe, but it began neglecting it the moment the ink on the contract was dry.

It finally shut down CompuServe Classic, the direct descendant of the original service, in July 2009.

Today, the About CompuServe page brags that it "provides complete and comprehensive products and access for internet online users at home, in the workplace and around the globe", but don't you believe it - it's really a budget-priced dialup ISP aimed at "value-driven adults going online for the first time".

Depending on which part of the site you trust, the current version of the service is either CompuServe 7.0, which was introduced back in 2001, or the even-mustier CompuServe 2000.

And the brand has been oddly melded with another tarnished AOL acquisition, Netscape.

NEXT PAGE: Napster

  1. We loved these brands once, but not so much now
  2. Bell & Howell
  3. AT&T
  4. Napster
  5. Netscape

While Google, Microsoft and Apple might be respected names in technology now, there is no guarantee of eternal health. We look at 12 big names that ran into financial hardship and got sold, causing the firms to lose their way.

5. Napster

What it was: The peer-to-peer file-swapping service invented by Boston college student Shawn Fanning in 1999.

It did as much as anything else to introduce the world to digital music, but it terrified the entertainment industry, which instantly sued. A court order put Napster out of business in 2001.

What it became: In 2002, Roxio bought the Napster name at auction and applied it to the not-very-successful Pressplay music service, which it had purchased from Universal Music and Sony - two of the Recording Industry Association of America members whose legal attack had shut down Napster in the first place.

Today's Napster is owned by Best Buy, and it's not bad - and it's not pricey, either. But whenever I speak its name, I still want to surround it with air quotes.

4. Packard Bell

What it was: A manufacturer of classic American radios - and, eventually, televisions - founded in 1926.

What it became: Like every other US maker of radios and TVs, Packard Bell eventually ran into dire straits.

In 1986, the brand name was bought by Israeli entrepreneur Beny Alagem, who applied it to a new line of home PCs. The new company played up the name's distinguished history but did nothing to dispel the confusion of consumers who thought it had something to do with Hewlett-Packard.

And it made... truly dreadful computers, with lousy customer service. Ones that were so cruddy that people stopped thinking of Packard Bell as a defunct maker of good radios and began thinking of it as an extant maker of terrible PCs.

The company was eventually bought by NEC, which kept on selling PB computers. Last year it was bought by Taiwanese PC giant Acer.

3. SCO

What it was: Once upon a time - starting in 1979, to be exact - there was a software company called The Santa Cruz Operation, or SCO.

It sold various versions of the UNIX operating system. And as far as I can remember, it was both successful and uncontroversial.

What it became: In 2001, SCO sold most of itself to Linux company Caldera, which switched its focus to Unix and took the SCO name.

In 2003, the new SCO declared that Linux violated UNIX copyrights, and began suing everybody in sight - such as IBM (eventually for $5bn), Novell, AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler.

The dispute remains mired in the courts and hasn't accomplished much except to earn SCO the permanent loathing of the entire Linux community. (It certainly doesn't seem to have made the company more successful.)

I can't think of many brands whose reputations have cratered in the way this one's has - it's a little as if Ritz did something to deserve the enmity of cracker lovers everywhere.

NEXT PAGE: Netscape

  1. We loved these brands once, but not so much now
  2. Bell & Howell
  3. AT&T
  4. Napster
  5. Netscape

While Google, Microsoft and Apple might be respected names in technology now, there is no guarantee of eternal health. We look at 12 big names that ran into financial hardship and got sold, causing the firms to lose their way.

2. Netscape

What it was: The company whose Navigator web browser did more than any other single product to introduce the world to the web. Need I say more?

What it became: AOL's $4.2bn 1998 acquisition of Netscape was an eerie and depressing repeat of its CompuServe buyout from the prior year: it bought a distinguished technology company, neglected it, then slapped its name on other, vaguely-related stuff.

Navigator was never the same under AOL's ownership and was officially abandoned in 2007; over the past decade, AOL has applied the Netscape name to a low-rent portal, a cheapo dialup ISP and a short-lived imitation of Digg.

Today's is merely with the Netscape logo as wallpaper. I can't imagine why anyone would go there on purpose.

1. Polaroid

What it was: The company founded by legendary technologist-entrepreneur Edwin Land in 1937.

Its instant cameras, such as the SX-70, are among the most ingenious, engaging gadgets of all time.

What it became: Signs that Polaroid was slipping date to the 1970s - the failure of its Polavision instant movie camera eventually led to the ouster of Edwin Land himself.

In the 1990s, digital photography rendered the Polaroid camera utterly obsolete. The company went bankrupt, then re-emerged as a licencing shell that permitted the once-glorious brand to be used for imported goods that had nothing to do with its heritage, such as portable DVD players.

In the meantime, it stopped making instant cameras and phased out film production. Then it went bankrupt again, and was sold once more.

Looking at the undistinguished, generic digital cameras and TV sets now offered under the Polaroid name makes me melancholy.

At least the name is also used on PoGo cameras and printers, which use interesting printing technology developed by former Polaroid engineers.

But if Polaroid can fall this far, no name is sacred. Apple and Google, take heed - and give thought to where you might wind up come 2060 or so if you aren't careful.

See also: The 40 best dying or dead technologies

  1. We loved these brands once, but not so much now
  2. Bell & Howell
  3. AT&T
  4. Napster
  5. Netscape