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Past innovators often struggle

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 28, 2002
(Issue 2026, The College Crowd)

The marketplace is unforgiving, and that's probably even more true of the online world. Today's innovator is often tomorrow's footnote to history – see Netscape on that score.

If morbid, curiosity still often drives us to find out what happened to yesterday's technological leaders.

Delphi Forums

Delphi started life in the 1980s as a dial-up online service, an early competitor to CompuServe. At one time, Delphi was a player in that arena. You had CompuServe, which was the biggie, followed by Prodigy, Delphi and GEnie, in no particular order. Oh, and some small start-up geared to Commodore 64 owners name of America Online.

Today, CompuServe exists as a sub-brand of AOL, Prodigy a sub-brand of phone giant SBC, and GEnie is gone. Delphi survives, but as a subscription-based forums service.

Why someone would want to pay to post and read messages when they can do so for free on the Usenet is beyond me, but Delphi claims 4.5 million members. Perhaps the conversations are more focused – or, more likely, there are folks who want to talk about Harry Potter or get help on model railroading or discuss their favorite song by Bob Marley without having to sort through the hundreds of porn advertisements that clog nearly every newsgroup on the Usenet.

Delphi Forums seems nearly as big as the Usenet, or at least far bigger than any one person could ever hope to take advantage of. Forums span every conceivable topic, and if there's interest, they'll add a new one as well.


When the World Wide Web was fresh and new in the early '90s, Bigfoot was one of the first search engines on the scene. Along with AltaVista, Excite, Infoseek and Lycos, Bigfoot ruled the early search engine scene.

But the whole banner advertising market soon became grotesquely oversaturated, and running a good search engine takes bodies, who want to be paid. And so Bigfoot fell out of the picture, along with a lot of other early search engines, to be replaced atop the pile by Google.

Bigfoot has since considerably broadened its business plan. They now offer e-mail forwarding, URL redirection, domain registration and management, text messaging and conference calling. Heck, they even have business and individual directories – not full search engines, but still close to what they formerly did.


Once I started looking into old search engines, I got curious about the fate of all the early, pro-Google players. Excite, of course, has been in the news of late because it merged up with the @Home high-speed Internet access business, forming Excite@Home. The news angle these days is the financial battering the company has taken, and there's an unofficial sort of death watch over it.

When not giving depositions or seeking new investors, the folks at Excite still run a search engine at the above URL. It's more a portal than a pure search engine page, though – you can get the latest headlines, check your stocks, shop online. Still, Excite is nowhere near the force it once was.


Not the first file-sharing service or software on the scene, Napster was the first to really grab the media's attention. It was also the first to noticeably slow the Internet as tens of millions of high school and college students joyfully swapped music with each other. At its high point, Napster was being banned from universities – not for promoting piracy, but for sucking up the schools' Internet bandwidth to the point that actual academics couldn't be performed. You just can't buy that kind of publicity.

All this attention proved to be a double-edged sword, however, as it brought additional attention from the recording industry. Napster didn't really have a defense, unlike, say,, which verified that you actually owned a CD before making a backup digital copy for you.

And it was never clear exactly what Napster's business plan was – just how were they going to pay the employees once the seed money was gone?

After Napster was ordered shut down by a federal judge, they tried to play nice with the recording industry, signing a deal with German media conglomerate BMG. Still, in early June, Napster filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection – claiming it was a precursor to a reorganization to move ahead.

Time will tell on that one.

The software model behind Napster was solid, though, and lives on in the dozens of file-sharing utilities now available, from LimeWire to the FreeNet.