Life-Changing Tech's Fall From Glory

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Before 1999, consumers were still messing with VCRs to, at best, record TV shows. (At worst, it cut off the ending because you never figured out that clock). Then TiVo took over and truly changed the way we watch TV.

The ability to pause live TV, skip commercials and schedule recordings with one button was mind boggling. TiVo, whether it liked it or not, became part of our vernacular -- even to describe other digital video recorders.

But what has TiVo done lately? Did you know or even care that Tim Tebow is the company's new brand ambassador? DVRs are here to stay. Approximately 46% of households have one, according to Leichtman Research Group. But only about 2% use a TiVo. (Also see Tech That Disrupts Our Lives for the Better)

TiVo's not alone. Anyone remember Vonage ? Or Movable Type? These companies were groundbreaking and with savvy, they led the way for new markets that affected our everyday lives. They're still around, but what are they up to? Here's a look at what happened to promising companies that changed the way people lived and then seemingly disappeared.

TiVo

Praised for its convenience and user experience, TiVo became a household name after going public in 1999. In fact, consumers turned TiVo into a verb to describe the ability to record TV. But as cable and satellite TV companies released their own DVRs, the company got distracted with patent-infringement lawsuits and licensing, and it lost its edge.

Fast forward a decade and TiVo continues to plug away with products competitors already offer, like the new TiVo Mini, a small device to pipe recorded video to other rooms. After a major marketing push last year, subscribers are now back to 3 million, which is down from 4.4 million in 2006.

"TiVo's lesson of the challenges of stand-alone is one that others continue to repeat (Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Next), while Netflix was successful by integrating into other devices," said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group.


At least the company's finally capitalizing on its customer data to help advertisers figure what commercials people really watch -- or skip. Tom Rogers, TiVo's CEO, said in February, the new TiVo Research and Analytics unit "will become a larger contributor to our growth."

Vonage

Vonage, which started in 2001, was an early contender in Internet telephone service, or VoIP. It strategically went after ordinary consumers with features like e911, local phone numbers and a major marketing push. It was also cheap: For the price of regular local-only landline service, Vonage offered unlimited local and long distance, plus calling features for which landline companies nickeled and dimed customers.

But while landline companies wizened up and started offering their own version of VoIP, Vonage seems to have sunk into the background. Besides introducing a mobile app in 2009, it's been a dull few years. Even with a recent push overseas, subscribers continue to abandon Vonage, which ended the first quarter this year with 2.3 million subscribers, down from a high of 2.6 million in 2008.

Movable Type

Back when nobody or their mother was a blogger, a little company named Six Apart launched Movable Type, in 2001. It simplified the process of blogging so you didn't need to learn how to code. And it went on to spearhead this new way of self-expression, becoming one of the most popular blogging software available.

But at some point, it proved inflexible, as the company rejected open-source software and began a convoluted licensing fee system, in 2004. As timing would have it, the free and open-source WordPress emerged and Movable Type seemed to vanish overnight. Now owned by a Japanese corporation, Movable Type still has some traction in the bloggerverse and focuses on power bloggers like The Huffington Post.

Napster

You probably vividly remember this story. You probably even used Napster. The file-sharing service launched in 1999 and popularized the use of digital music formats like MP3s.

Without Napster, music companies may not have been so eager to join Apple's iTunes, which in turn spurred the acceptance of iPods, which led to iPhones and then iPads. People grew comfortable with MP3s, causing CD sales to plunge. Kids, mothers, fathers and senior citizens were sharing their music collections through Napster because it was free and easy.

But since most of the files were copyrighted, Napster could not continue "as is." It was forced to shut down in 2001. Other companies, including Best Buy , owned Napster at one time or another. Subscription music site Rhapsody is the current owner of Napster, or at least the name.

Palm

Before the iPhone, there was the PalmPilot, which went on sale in 1996. The Palm managed to do what Apple and its 1993 Newton could not: Find its way into the hands of millions of users.

Fans sites popped up, Palms showed up in the movies. People relied on the ergonomic personal digital assistant for daily schedules, contacts and notes. The Palm PDA, with its pen stylus, continued to trump competitors into the mid-2000s.

While Palm made a valid attempt to keep up with smartphones with 2009's Palm Pre, its days were numbered. In August 2011, Palm's latest owner, Hewlett-Packard Company , announced it was ending development of Palm hardware, although development of HP's WebOS continues.

Nokia

Back in the heyday when families started getting cellphones, Nokia was unstoppable. The Finnish company's phones were everywhere, in all flavors, colors, sounds and, importantly, price levels. In fact, only last year was Nokia dethroned by Samsung as the world's largest handset maker, according to market researcher Strategy Analytics. Nokia had held the top spot since 1998.

That may come as a surprise for many in the U.S., who have heard little from Nokia in the past few years. That's because with the rise of smartphones, few talk about cellphones anymore, leaving Nokia alone. For its part, Nokia ditched its home-grown Symbian OS in 2011 and put Windows Phone software as its new default. Today Nokia is the underdog in its old niche, but an underdog whose fan base appears to be growing.

BlackBerry

Research in Motion, now known as BlackBerry, gave is the "CrackBerry." It was always more of a business-user's phone, with its remarkable messaging capabilities in places where competitors failed to get a signal.

But it's amazing how it went from being compared to a drug to a has-been in a few short years. Gartner put BlackBerry's growing share of the global smartphone sales at 20% in 2009, above the 14% owned by the then 2-year-old iPhone. Last year, BlackBerry's share dropped to 3.5%, behind Android's 69.7% and iPhone's 20.9%.

Microsoft Windows

When Microsoft launched Windows 3.0 in 1990, the improved graphics helped Microsoft attract a more mainstream user, not to mention reaching $1 billion in sales for the first time. And with Windows 95 five years later, Microsoft was on its way to becoming the most valuable company in the world. A new Windows became the reason to buy a new computer.

But Apple's rise, and ironically, Microsoft's attempt to change up Windows, has beaten the software giant down. While Windows is still one of the most widely used operating systems today, few look at the company as a trend-setter.

Microsoft, of course, is far from calling it quits with Windows. A Windows version for smartphones is the newer underdog in the mobile industry. As for the new Windows 8, out since last fall, Microsoft just announced it sold 100 million licenses. A major update is planned for this year and rumor has it that the beloved Start button will return.

Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own. Email her at news@tamara.net and follow her on Twitter @gadgetress.

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