Ask HN: What are examples of startups that died by the hands of Big Tech?

39 points | by pHollda 9 days ago


  • klyrs 9 days ago
    Your examples are all tech vs. tech. Tech vs. brick-and-mortar has been an absolute bloodbath. Most local bookstores are gone. Sears, and many smaller retailers. Malls are dead. You kids probably don't remember cool independent computer shops (though there are a few hangers-on). Payless shoes comes to mind, apparently they're trying to bounce back. Local newspapers died at the hands of craigslist, which isn't even "big" tech.
    • synu 9 days ago
      Local independent computer shops, where people would hang out almost like an impromptu local computer club are a real loss. I miss them a lot.
      • fossuser 9 days ago
        What decade did those exist? The 80s?
        • klyrs 8 days ago
          In my experience (I think there's some regional variation here) they were still thriving in the mid/late 90s, and I continued to frequent local computer shops until around the mid aughts. For me, there were three major factors: computers got more standardized, so one didn't need to consult a guru to make a decent system; documentation went online, see above; and finally companies like NewEgg just crushed it in terms of inventory that local shops couldn't compete with. They could special-order whatever parts you wanted, but that was slower and more expensive.
          • fossuser 8 days ago
            Interesting - I think I must have just missed them, too bad because they sound cool.
            • synu 8 days ago
              It may have been more of a small town thing? I’m not sure, but that was where the one I went to was. It was there until the early 2000s but the writing was on the wall in the late 90s.
          • kyriakos 7 days ago
            early 90's too. internet killed them really. once communication between same minded people was possible online they transitioned from meeting places to just shops then ecommerce finished them off.
          • jmclnx 9 days ago
            yes, I agree
          • dlivingston 9 days ago
            To expand on this, there are also industries and product categories that died from tech.

            Travel planning agencies. Print media, especially local newspapers. Traveler’s guides & maps.

            Small niche tech industries being consumed by more general products; i.e., smartphones reducing to irrelevance dedicated GPS devices, MP3 players, DVD players, calculators, landline phones, and point-and-shoot cameras.

            • scarface74 9 days ago
              There is thriving market for travel agents. I know many who do it as a side gig. When you want to arrange a group vacation like for family reunions. It’s a lot easier to have someone else take care of the details. They make their money from commissions from the destinations.
          • loloquwowndueo 9 days ago
            “Large” companies like Lotus, WordPerfect and Ashton-Tate were founded years after Microsoft, came to dominate their niches, and were thoroughly crushed when Microsoft expanded into those niches.

            This is a great read about the rise and fall of WordPerfect.

            • Every one of those cited companies crushed themselves first. Lotus followed the common pattern of burning out and losing their technical talent after they first shipped, also made too large a bet on OS/2. Ashton-Tate did a little better maybe but also lost its ability to write software that worked, which was much more difficult back in those days. Borland and WordPerfect found it much more difficult than they expected to transition their products to Windows 3.x.

              The latter had too much pride in their collection of DOS printer drivers, but what really killed them was releasing something that passed the bar of not crashing, but would per a lawyer I worked with regularly drop all your tables and figures to the bottom of the document. Borland was slow to get their stuff working on Windows, was late to bundling an Office equivalent according to a marketing guy from there I once worked with, and had the bad portent of the edifice complex:

              To this day, well it's after they started going beyond their start in computer languages, their 808x C compiler for example blew away the competition when it finally launched, we ding Microsoft for their quality problems, but especially in the days Gates ran it one of the "secrets" of their success was writing software that basically worked, didn't crash on you etc. This makes it easy to beat competitors who lose that ability, or aren't as good at it.

              • jmclnx 9 days ago
                > Lotus followed the common pattern of burning out and losing their technical talent after they first shipped, also made too large a bet on OS/2.

                Actually, this bet was made because Microsoft told Lotus OS/2 is the future. They developed a very nice spreadsheet on OS/2, but we know how that ended.

                While Lotus was focusing on OS/2, M/S created their spreadsheet for Windows in secret and stole the market. Lotus did not have the resources to develop on 2 different platforms.

                This is from people I knew who were high up in Lotus. Another reason to never trust M/S now that they "like Linux". :)

                • I'm sure this is how the failures at Lotus explained what happened.

                  My take on it is that Microsoft was at first enthusiastic enough about OS/2 but IBM doomed it, first and foremost through their "the PC AT is the last personal computer you'll have to buy" message to their customers, something they used to be able to do when they controlled a lot more of the business computer market and "no one ever got fired for buying IBM." Forcing OS/2 to run on the 286 was Not Even Wrong, for example in protected mode a 64KiB segment change incurred a hit of many cycles (40?), Intel did not understand how people used the 808x and only fixed that with the 386.

                  But did your people "high up in Lotus" mention how the mid-life kicker for 1-2-3 using expanded memory ( was coded by people against orders who'd left the company by the time it was rediscovered and made into a product?

                  That the Jazz office suite for the Macintosh was developed using assembly "for efficiency" but without a LAN or other means of close collaboration, every week people would hand in floppy disks for a complete build and thus a great deal of duplication made it very much less efficient? And in general how poorly that software development model worked? I see in Wikipedia "in Guy Kawasaki's book The Macintosh Way, Lotus Jazz was described as being so bad, 'even the people who pirated it returned it'."

                  I was working in the Boston are in the 1980s and knew a lot of people who'd worked for Lotus or coworkers or friends of them, so I got takes from their very beginnings, which was a handful of people writing in close collaboration 1-2-3 in, yes, assembly language.

                  • scarface74 9 days ago
                    It was no “secret” that Microsoft would be writing Excel for Windows. It was already available on the Mac.
                  • anamax 9 days ago
                    One of the early deliverables from Microsoft Research was an efficient scheme for running big programs on 286 machines.

                    That gave them a couple of years when Microsoft applications could do things on standard customer machines that their competitors couldn't do.

                    That one deliverable was worth more than MR has cost up to this point.

                    • This sounds very cool, and I can imagine one way they might have done it: instrument a program probably including with the 286 in-circuit emulator like features, then link its code and data for maximum locality in 64 KiB chunks to minimize the segment switching hit.

                      And/or make better use of the extra segment and maybe stack segment, compiler technology there. I'd imagine other compiler hacks would be useful, for example compare to today's bigger systems where the premium is on having as much in the most local caches as possible. Cleverness once you're in them is overwhelmed by the penalty of going to a more distant cache, memory, or taking a TLB miss. "Cache is the new RAM, RAM is the new disk, disk is the new tape." and all that.

                    • GartzenDeHaes 9 days ago
                      Borland made a bad business decision by trusting Microsoft to "play fair". For their flagship C++ IDE, they instrumented a version of the Windows headers to generate classes for their OO GUI framework. Microsoft then started to frequently change the Windows headers in ways that broken Borlands product. With no advance notice, every month or two MS would release an updated Windows SDK that broke Borlands tools.
                    • serallak 9 days ago
                      Wordperfect at least was born before Ms/DOS.

                      It was a viable competitor of Microsoft word in the Ms/DOS era, but did not manage the transition to the windows era.

                      • scarface74 9 days ago
                        They were “crushed” because they released shitty versions of their applications once GUIs took over
                      • wilde 9 days ago
                        There’s one of these stories every year at WWDC when Apple PMs take top apps and turn them into OS features. “Sherlocked” is a phrase for a reason.


                        • aaronbrethorst 9 days ago
                          Seems quite likely that Clubhouse would still be just as irrelevant if Twitter had not launched Spaces. Clubhouse feels more like a fad than roadkill.
                          • hthrowaway5 9 days ago
                            Strange to me that you put Dropbox on here since they've really struggled to succeed on their own. I think Steve Jobs was right when he said it was a "feature, not a product." Selling to Google or Apple I think would've been the better move in hindsight.

                            Snapchat is probably a good example of a company that made the right move by not being acquired.

                            • matt_heimer 9 days ago
                              I loved Dropbox when it first came out. Now I have Google Drive as part of my paid storage for Gmail, iCloud Drive for Apple devices, and OneDrive as part of my Office 365 subscription. I can't imagine any reason to pay for Dropbox.
                              • bwb 9 days ago
                                Read about google shutting down accounts and never restoring it.
                                • scarface74 9 days ago
                                  I would never trust Google for anything critical for that reason. Google Drive is just another backup for my photos.
                                  • matt_heimer 9 days ago
                                    I know, I use Takeout on a regular basis, backup phone photos and such to a NAS, and my primary Gmail is a custom domain (I've started paying) that I could switch to another email provider if needed.
                                    • Also see Google+ failing to accomplish much of anything positive in part by insisting on True Names like Facebook which it was trying to kill, and shutting down some accounts that failed to do this to their satisfaction.

                                      For extra credit, the leader of the Google+ effort didn't use his True Name.

                                      To extend this to the theme of the topic, while Google obviously displaced a lot of incumbents starting with the AltaVista search engine, do we expect this to happen in the future?

                                • singron 9 days ago
                                  A recurring theme in this thread is that big tech often gives away free products as loss leaders and this kills any business that relied on selling a comparable product. I can't really think of many instances where big tech out-innovated a smaller competitor into obscurity using the same business model.

                                  I think a lot of times they would rather just buy the company than hope that they can somehow be more innovative.

                                  Maybe Facebook/Instagram vs Snapchat?

                                  • scarface74 9 days ago
                                    BigTech no more “gives away” products than anyone else. It’s part of a bundle. If you take the DropBox example, Jobs called out DropBox as a “feature not a product” years before Office 365/OneDrive, iCloud Drive, and Google Drive were a thing.

                                    Microsoft is making money hand over fist on Office365.

                                  • ImKevinArcher 9 days ago
                                    I need to mention TikTok, it's evident that TikTok is the game-changer, but the most important is that TikTok got so many users from Meta(Facebook & Instagram) and YouTube. TikTok is the unique reason why Facebook has lost users for the first time in its history. Here you can find more info( Maybe in a couple of years, TikTok (ByteDance) will be the next big tech out there.
                                    • In reference to the recent product manager shuffling at Twitter it was mentioned on HN that they killed a TikTok like video product of their's that was on fire in the good way, and I think it was said TikTok benefited from this sooner or later.

                                      Continues my theme that a lot of these examples start with a failure by a company.

                                      • tyrantalope 9 days ago
                                        Surely it's a reference to twitter buying out vine, and killing it off for a strange twitter equivalent that got axed pretty quick?
                                    • While it's true Google Video was not able to get traction vs. YouTube, I've also read some good accounts of the merger that YouTube would have crumbled had they not had the resources from Google (both machine and people) needed to scale.
                                      • thetinguy 9 days ago
                                        Yup. And people don’t realize that a lot of problem with YouTube like the content Id system come from that settlement.
                                        • scarface74 9 days ago
                                          And YouTube was about to get sued into oblivion. Even today, YouTube is barely profitable and would be a horrible stand-alone business.
                                        • singron 9 days ago
                                          Google Cloud/kubernetes vs Docker Inc.

                                          Docker had a lot of problems, but it didn't help that they had made bets in orchestration and then the industry largely converged on kubernetes instead of their products.

                                          • ternus 9 days ago
                                            Slack is a strange example here, as it certainly seems to be thriving; do you think it's lost/dead?
                                            • tomhoward 9 days ago
                                              Slack is a great product/company, but as Parker Conrad of Rippling explains in this podcast [1] (about 13 minutes in), Microsoft has been able to fend off Slack with an arguably inferior product, just by having an ecosystem that so many companies/orgs are already fully bought into.


                                              • joshstrange 9 days ago
                                                I think it's less about the "ecosystem" they the bought into but rather the bean counters saying "Hey, we have free access to Teams, why are we wasting our money on Slack?" (That might have been what you were saying but it read more like "We love all things MS, why not move our chat to that too?")
                                                • tomhoward 9 days ago
                                                  No doubt several factors/motivations were/are at play, but I think what Parker is talking about is that for companies/orgs (particularly big corporates and government bodies) who already had a Microsoft operating environment and who weren't already using Slack, they would be much more comfortable adopting Teams, for reasons of cost, interoperability and (perceived) security, than adopting Slack, even if Slack was superior as a standalone group chat app.
                                                  • joshstrange 9 days ago
                                                    That’s fair, I was more-so talking to the companies that have dropped Slack and moved to Teams (I have a number of friends who have experienced this first-hand).

                                                    At one point a company I used to work for tried to get us to move to Hangouts (or whatever Google was calling it that week) since we already paid for Google Workspace accounts for everyone. Thankfully there was enough pushback to kill that idea early.

                                                  • sophacles 9 days ago
                                                    Your counter to "ecocsystem" is literally "because ecosystem"
                                                    • joshstrange 9 days ago
                                                      Wanting to switch into an ecosystem because of cost is different from wanting to switch because it integrates better with other products. For myself, when I hear "ecosystem", I think more of the latter which is why I commented. Cost might be a factor but it's not the first thing that comes to mind for me when using that word.
                                                • hthrowaway5 9 days ago
                                                  I agree with you. There is something about Salesforce in particular I feel people don't trust to be a good steward of acquired products.

                                                  I don't feel it's deserved even though I worked for an acquired company that certainly did fail because of their leadership—I think we were the exception though. For Mulesoft, Tableau, Quip: I don't think it's clear these would be successful companies on their own.

                                                  They paid a ton of money for Slack and need to protect that investment.

                                                  Is there a clear example of Salesforce failing at an acquisition? Or do people see the examples I gave above differently than I do?

                                                  • fossuser 9 days ago
                                                    My take is that once salesforce acquires a product at best it’ll remain stagnant and unchanged.

                                                    It’ll never get better, the smart people working on it quit and go elsewhere.

                                                    • 0des 9 days ago
                                                      Salesforce is the rich guy at the table eating off of other people's plates and making people uneasy. Bloated, bald, disgusting, but just enough money to keep being relevant.
                                                  • supersync 9 days ago
                                                    It’s more of a Disney/Pixar situation

                                                    Slack is the wedge the Salesforce product team is using to reinvent itself.

                                                  • sloaken 9 days ago
                                                    Borland VS Microsoft

                                                    Netscape Navigator VS MS IE

                                                    • scarface74 9 days ago
                                                      People look at Netscape through rose colored glasses. But it was never a good product. Back in the day, people use to judge the robustness of their operating system by how well it could handle a Netscape crash.
                                                      • Bingo. The single reason I switched to IE about the time of version 3 is that it just didn't crash very often. Again, Microsoft being better at writing software that works, see my longer essay in this topic. Like Boeing buying MacDonald Douglas, this part of Netscape was captured by the executives of a failing company who were better at politics and didn't care about minor details like the quality of the product. Here the existing product, as I recall they focused on the great rewrite from scratch which eventually became Firefox.

                                                        Also see how Friendster failed after the VC types ousted the founder and focused on doing deals with other companies, were not interested in reports from those below them that it was taking tens of minutes to even log onto the site.

                                                      • dtagames 9 days ago
                                                        I worked at Borland when they were bigger than Microsoft. The hubris was amazing, a nice complement to their indifference at what MS was doing with programming languages and office software.
                                                        • chasil 9 days ago
                                                          In obtaining Dave Cutler, Microsoft acquired a phenomenally good kernel engineer. The small team that accompanied him to Microsoft was a lethal threat to the PC software industry.

                                                          Cutler had already delivered an enterprise kernel that carved a market out of IBM. Windows NT was likewise going to rip market share away from anyone in conflict with Microsoft.

                                                          I don't know the exact timing when Microsoft dumped Xenix, but I know that it was close.

                                                      • zoolily 8 days ago
                                                        MS IE was built from a web browser MS bought from Spyglass, so two startups died in that war. By bundling IE with Windows, MS escaped paying royalties to Spyglass (they were sued over this but settled out of court for just $8 million.)
                                                      • jonjacky 9 days ago
                                                        Delicious, or, the bookmarking site [1], which popularized tagging as an information management technique. Very popular in the decade of the 2000s. Founded by Joshua Schachter in 2003, acquired by Yahoo in 2005. A leaked memo from Yahoo in 2010 said they were "sunsetting" the site, leading to an exodus of users. Sold by Yahoo in 2011 to another company that ruined it. Acquired by Pinboard in 2017, but not revived.


                                                        • cheez0r 9 days ago
                                                          Flickr. Losing to nothing except terrible leadership and ham-fisted attempts to monetize.
                                                          • WalterGR 8 days ago
                                                            Just FYI, roughly half of the US includes startups in "Big Tech". Anything in Silicon Valley is considered Big Tech. A local shop that has programmers wouldn't be, though.
                                                            • smoldesu 8 days ago
                                                              Juicero. They never stood a chance next to Big Blender...
                                                              • jmclnx 9 days ago
                                                                Classifies, now on Craigslist. There were many pulp magazines (like Want-Ads) that are gone, never mind the newspaper industry which is dying a very slow death.
                                                                • polski-g 9 days ago
                                                                  Every other ticketing system vs JIRA.

                                                                  Every game market platform vs Steam.

                                                                  • maccard 9 days ago
                                                                    I don't think either of these are good examples. There are plenty of project management tools that have existed alongside jira - Asana, Basecamp, pivotal all have healthy userbases. Even Trello, although they're atlassian now.

                                                                    Same for games - gog, epic store, humble store, ms store. You may not like them, but they're around and booming.

                                                                  • beamatronic 9 days ago
                                                                    Palm, Dropcam, Nest
                                                                    • A counter example startup killing a big tech company: bought and essentially killed it. F*king c*ts.
                                                                    • hadeohedron 9 days ago
                                                                      While it was more of a tech retailer than a tech company, Blockbuster qualifies.
                                                                      • scarface74 9 days ago
                                                                        There is a much longer story about why Blockbuster failed. When it was split off from Viacom, they saddled it with $1 billion in debt as some type of financial engineering.
                                                                      • mylons 9 days ago
                                                                        heroku getting bought by salesforce
                                                                        • trifit 9 days ago
                                                                          • pHollda 9 days ago
                                                                            Now reframed the question. Vine isn't an example.
                                                                          • cellis 9 days ago
                                                                            Basecamp for sure
                                                                            • rapphil 8 days ago
                                                                              • sys_64738 8 days ago
                                                                                Red Hat.
                                                                                • fullstackwife 9 days ago
                                                                                  • ec109685 9 days ago
                                                                                    They got crushed by another startup, slack.