Party Like It’s 1999: 10 Old Tech Ideas That Are New Again

9/1/10Follow @gthuang

Timing is everything—especially in the tech world. If you follow trends in technology, science, or business for long enough, you realize there are very few new ideas. Instead, the combination of the right idea with the right timing and execution is usually the key to success in any field.

Look at all the snazzy tech products that have sprung up around us in recent years—iPhones and iPads, Kindle e-book readers, mobile and gaming apps, GPS and mapping technologies. And some services are so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice them anymore, like Internet banking or online shopping.

It made me think back a decade to 1999-2000, the height of the tech bubble, and consider which of these ideas were already around back then, but either didn’t quite pan out or failed. (Of course, you could go back much further than that, but 10 years feels like an eternity in tech these days.) If you paged through Red Herring, Fast Company, or Technology Review in the late ‘90s, I suspect you’d find many ideas that look a lot like the current tech landscape.

So I informally surveyed a few techies and venture capitalists on both coasts, and have compiled a list of 10 old ideas from the dot-com era that have finally arrived. In some cases, the old product was not positioned correctly, or the technology of the day didn’t support it well. But in most cases, the main issue was the timing of the market—the offering just wasn’t compelling enough at its price point or it cost too much to produce back then. Now times have changed.

This list is by no means comprehensive. If you’ve got a company or idea that I missed—or if you have a different take on the reasons for the turnaround—please leave a comment below.

Without further ado, here are 10 oldies that are new again:

1. Group-buying sites (Mercata vs. Groupon)

This is the quintessential old idea whose time has come. Mercata, the Paul Allen-backed dot-com that withdrew its IPO in early 2001 and closed down, struggled to gain traction in part because it competed for consumer-product deals with e-retailers and big portals like Yahoo and AOL. In the past couple of years, Groupon solved this problem by focusing on one deal per day, but across very different kinds of stores. A down economy, mainstream use of the Web, and lack of competitors didn’t hurt. Now there are more than 100 group-buying sites around the world—mostly blatant knockoffs of Groupon, which is one of the Web’s fastest-growing companies ever. (One non-knockoff is Tippr, which now owns Mercata’s patents.)

2. Tablet computers (Microsoft Tablet PC vs. Apple iPad)

Much has been written on this topic already. Microsoft introduced a tablet version of Windows in 2001, but it never sold very well. As my colleague Wade wrote in January, the iPad benefits from advances in interface technologies like touchscreens, virtual keyboards, and accelerometers. It also benefits from a critical mass of consumers who are addicted to mobile apps and Internet-delivered media in a way that didn’t exist in 2001. What’s more, Apple has lots of experience with its previous portable devices such as the Newton and the iPhone, so it has the user interface down pat. But can the iPad hold off dozens of emerging competitors?

3. Digital video recorders (ReplayTV and TiVo vs. Comcast DVR)

The first major DVR maker, ReplayTV, struggled from 1997 to 2001, when it was purchased by SonicBlue, which promptly went bankrupt; ReplayTV’s remnants eventually became part of DirecTV. TiVo, ReplayTV’s later imitator, gained popular acclaim, but didn’t have a profitable year until 2008. Now DVRs are almost as ubiquitous as cable TV, thanks to giants like Comcast, which has been known to charge consumers (like me) for a DVR even when they didn’t request one. Chalk this one up to mainstream distribution.

4. Smartphones (Palm VII vs. iPhone)

OK, this is an obvious one. But what is it that changed between personal digital assistants like the Palm VII—which was released in 1999 with wireless data communication and Web capabilities, and even rudimentary location-based services (based on zip codes)—and the iPhone? Besides the increased processing power in phones, the key factors were much faster broadband Internet, mainstream use of the Web, and the existence of a large community of third-party app developers. So it was a combination of the technology of the day and market timing.

5. Internet banking (Security First Network Bank vs. Bank of America)

Another no-brainer, but people forget how recently they didn’t trust their financial information going over the Web. In the mid-90s, Security First Network Bank was among the first online-only banks. Consumers were slow to warm to the idea, because of perceived security and accessibility issues. Now, of course, every major bank lets customers conduct transactions online. And a new crop of Web startups has sprung forth, ranging in focus from financial services for teens (Bobber Interactive) to group payments (WePay) to online money transfer (peerTransfer) to simplified personal financial management (Mint.com, acquired by Intuit).

6. B2B Exchanges (Ariba vs. Alibaba)

The field of business-to-business commerce exchanges—connecting corporate buyers and suppliers of goods—was certainly hot in 2000. Ariba, the Silicon Valley e-commerce and spending management company, was part of this early trend. Yet by 2002, the field was dying, in part because the technical networks required were difficult to set up. Ariba was able to survive with other products, and today it is reviving e-commerce exchange in the Internet cloud. Meanwhile, China-based Alibaba.com, which started in 1999, also has weathered the storm to become one of the world’s biggest B2B trading platforms for small companies. IBM’s recent $1.4 billion acquisition of AT&T’s Sterling Commerce also helps validate the sector.

7. E-book readers (Rocket eBook vs. Amazon Kindle)

Another classic example of a great technology at the wrong time. NuvoMedia released the Rocket eBook reader in 1998. It did almost everything the Kindle does, except for wireless downloads, though it was also thicker and heavier. But there was not enough of a market for such a device at the time, and it was discontinued after five years. Now, with the advent of E Ink, smaller batteries, wireless delivery, and the whole digital book ecosystem, the Kindle is Amazon’s bestselling product, and has spawned many similar devices. Whether it will survive the iPad is another question.

8. The Web on TV (Microsoft WebTV vs. Boxee, Hulu, Roku, etc.)

Around 1999, a major battle was shaping up between Microsoft, AOL, and others over delivering Internet access via TV sets. Microsoft had acquired WebTV Networks and was going full-steam into home entertainment. Two years later, the field was dead. After the dot-com bust, consumers didn’t care about browsing the Web on their TVs. Now, with the rise of online video and fast broadband networks, the idea of bridging the gap between TV and the Internet is alive and well, thanks to companies like Boxee, Roku, Hulu, Netflix, and ZeeVee (and don’t forget Apple, Google, and now, Amazon).

9. On-demand delivery and personal services (Kozmo and Webvan vs. TaskRabbit and Thumbtack)

Grocery delivery service Webvan and its lesser known cousin Kozmo, which offered 1-hour delivery service of retail goods in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, flamed out even more brightly than most of their dot-com brethren. Webvan squandered more than $1 billion on vehicles and warehouses before going bankrupt in 2001, and venture investors lost $250 million on Kozmo. Yet Webvan competitor Peapod is still around, and now there’s a new and promising crop of Web startups like TaskRabbit (formerly RunMyErrand) and Thumbtack, where consumers can go online and commission people to pick up their groceries, cook meals, walk their dog, remodel their kitchen, or do almost anything else. The difference: today’s services are merely clearinghouses—crowdsourcing the real work to eager part-timers or contractors—and have few overhead expenses.

10. Nanotech (Nanosys vs. A123Systems)

This last one is a bit more speculative than the rest. But I’ll go out on a limb and say that “nanotech”—which last had a good reputation around 2004, at least in business circles—has reinvented itself in the form of advanced materials and energy companies. While Silicon Valley’s Nanosys is still alive and kicking six years after its canceled IPO, another crop of companies, led by Boston’s A123Systems (which started in 2001), has used nanotech to develop new kinds of batteries, energy storage, and solar power technologies (MiaSolé, Innovalight, Nanosolar), which are just starting to take off as the field has matured. In the long run, those might turn out to be the most important innovations in this list.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.danshapiro.com Dan Shapiro

    One of my favorite VC quotes is “Early is a synonym for Wrong.” Don’t forget Amazon Fresh in the shopping reborn category!

  • David Pitkin

    I have to admit that I think Glassbook not Rocketbook would be a better 10 years ago E-Book. I did work there but that technology is still kicking around at Adobe.

  • http://www.cityvoter.com Josh Walker

    I’d add local communities, journalism to this list: In 1999, Microsoft’s Sidewalk sold to CitySearch and this year you’ve got Everyblock, Outside.in, and Patch reinventing that experience.

  • Susan

    I’d also consider Social media – remember Six Degrees??

  • Pingback: Apple TV Linkin’ « FutureToob

  • Dan Greenberg

    OK Please let me state the obvious:

    Time-sharing vs. the cloud

    And if we want it to go back just one decade instead of 3, then “IBM On Demand vs. the cloud.” Remember those cool IBM print ads (yes, I said PRINT ads) pitching computing as the Nth utility after water, electricity, etc.?