20 years later, Lycos searches for rebirth

The Lycos office in 1999.
The Lycos office in 1999.

Back in the late 1990s, when the World Wide Web was young, Lycos was among the Internet’s most comprehensive and popular search engines. Its memorable TV ads featured a mascot, a big black Labrador retriever, that could find anything you wanted: new clothes, sports cars, even super­model Claudia Schiffer.

The Waltham company was among the first respected global Internet brands, and it helped establish Greater Boston as a center of online commerce, a challenger to the West Coast titans Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

But ravaged by management infighting and the great dot-com bust, Lycos went from technology titan to Internet ­also-ran. Unable to match Google’s superior search technology or Amazon.com’s excellence as an online retailer, Lycos saw its audience dwindle. A series of foreign owners have failed to revive the company’s former glory.

Yet it managed to avoid the fate of other Internet pioneers, hanging on as the technology world evolved radically in a few short years. Now, Lycos is trying to be relevant again by capitalizing on the emerging technology that connects people with their homes, cars, and other objects of everyday life, the so-called Internet of Things.

“It’s a new direction, but we feel the entire Internet is moving this way,” said Lycos president Brad Cohen.

In June, the company launched a line of wearable devices, called Lycos Life, that includes a fitness wristband and ring. Each can be used to control household items and communicate with smartphones and other computers. The ring contains a chip for short-range communications — unlocking the front door and setting the air conditioner to 68 degrees, for example. The fitness band features a Bluetooth radio transmitter that could control home gadgets from farther away.

IDC Corp. of Framingham reported in June that the Internet of Things already includes 10.3 billion devices worldwide, and that global sales of IoT-compatible devices will reach $1.7 trillion by 2020.

Tech titans like Google Inc. and Apple Inc. are maneuvering to dominate the field, while companies such as Fitbit Inc.
have a headstart in wearables that Lycos will be hard-pressed to match.

Time was, Lycos was a dominant ­Internet company.

In 1995, CMG Information Services Inc. (CMGI), a Wilmington company that managed mailing lists for marketing companies, purchased Internet search technology invented by Michael “Fuzzy” Mauldin, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“I started Lycos on my desk at Carnegie Mellon and two years later it was a publicly traded company,” said Mauldin, who now raises cattle in Texas and participates in a robot fighting league. “We had the biggest and best catalog until Google came along later.”

Its first chief executive, Bob Davis, built a network of online services through acquisitions, including the game site Gamesville, dating service Matchmaker.com, and Tripod and Angelfire, where people could build their own websites.

“We were a very acquisitive company with a lot of businesses we brought in-house,” Davis recalled.

By 1999, the Lycos network attracted more than 31 million visitors every month. “We were bigger than Google,” Davis said. “We were bigger than Yahoo.”

The first hint of trouble came when Lycos announced a $22 billion merger with Ticketmaster and the Home Shopping Network in February 1999. Lycos investors complained the deal undervalued their shares, at a time when stocks of Internet companies were soaring. Its stock plummeted, and so did the value of the deal, to $17 billion. The merger collapsed after CMGI, which still owned 20 percent of Lycos, came out strongly against it.

Before it became Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots was briefly known as CMGI Field.
Before it became Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots was briefly known as CMGI Field.
Lycos found a new suitor in a Spanish Internet company, Terra Networks. In May 2000, the companies announced a stock-swap merger valued at $12.5 billion. Again, investors griped, and Lycos shares quickly lost 20 percent of their value. The deal eventually closed with a value of just $5.5 billion.

By then, the notorious dot-com bubble had burst, relegating many once-famous Internet companies to the dust bin. Meantime, Google had perfected a superior Internet search service, which won over many Lycos loyalists.

In 2004, Terra sold Lycos to South Korea’s Daum Communications Corp. for $115 million, a fraction of what it had paid four years earlier. Lycos’ audience kept dwindling, but the company managed to turn a modest profit even as its value continued to decline. In 2010, Ybrant Digital Ltd., an online advertising company in India, paid just $36 million for Lycos, then changed its corporate name to Lycos Internet Ltd. In May, Lycos made a major strategic shift, selling or licensing its key search and advertising patents and betting its future on the Internet of Things.

“Considering that the wearables market is still in its initial stages, everything’s on the table,” said chief executive Suresh Reddy. The company had revenue of $320 million, and a $55.96 million profit in its most recent fiscal year.

Still, Ramon Llamas, a wearables analyst at IDC, foresees a painful comeback for Lycos. “It’s hard to build a brand, especially one that didn’t have much to do with fitness or wearables,” he said. “I think it’s just going to raise an eyebrow. ‘You’re back? Why?’  ”

The new strategy has drawn Fuzzy Mauldin back to the fold. The computer scientist who spawned the original Lycos was named a director in August — “the first company to get me to work on anything in 20 years” — and will help Lycos develop systems to give people instant control of digital devices without sacrificing privacy.

And former CEO Bob Davis, a prominent local venture investor, believes the Lycos name will help sell its new identity. “The company still has a brand that is recognizable,” he said. “I think leveraging that brand equity is a smart idea.”

A LYCOS TIMELINE

1993

Mosaic is the first Web browser to become popular with the general public.

 

1995

  • June: CMG Information Services of Wilmington buys the rights to the Lycos Web searching technology developed by Dr. Michael “Fuzzy” Mauldin of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

 

1996

  • September: Lycos launches the first search engine to find pictures and sounds online.

 

1998

  • September: Google is formed in California.
  • A tiny upstart, Amazon.com, focuses on selling books.

 

1998

  • February: Lycos acquires Tripod, a Web-hosting service founded in Williamstown by Bo Peabody, for $58 million. At the time Tripod was one of the 10 most popular sites on the Internet.
  • August: Buys WhoWhere for $133 million and picks up the Web-hosting service Angelfire and free e-mail provider MailCity.
  • October: Buys Wired Digital, the online operation of Wired magazine, for $83 million in stock.

 

1999

  • February: Lycos chief executive Bob Davis (near right) announces plan to merge with USA Networks and Ticketmaster, owned by media mogul Barry Diller, to create a $17 billion Internet conglomerate. But Lycos shares fall sharply as investors feel the complex stock swap undervalues the company.
  • March: CMGI chief executive David Wetherell expresses doubts about the deal and quits the Lycos board in protest.

April: Lycos passes Yahoo to become the most visited destination on the Web.

  • May: Deal with USA Networks and Ticketmaster falls through.

 

2000

  • May: Spanish Internet company Terra Networks agrees to acquire Lycos for $12.6 billion in stock.
  • October: Terra Lycos merger is complete. But because of Terra’s falling share price, its value has sunk to $5.4 billon.

 

2000

  • February: Internet company AOL agrees to buy Time Warner for $164 billion, the largest merger ever.
  • March: The dot-com stock bubble hits its peak, as the Nasdaq reaches 5,048.62, double its level of a year before.
  • April: Federal court rules that Microsoft is a monopoly, further undercutting the technology boom.

 

2001

  • February: Bob Davis resigns from Terra Lycos. By late March, Lycos shares have fallen 30 percent.

 

2004 

  • Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launches thefacebook.com.
  • October: Terra sells Lycos to Daum Communications of South Korea for $95 million.

 

2006

  • Twitter is launched.

 

2007

  • Apple releases its first iPhone.

 

2010

  • August: Daum sells Lycos to Ybrant Digital of India for $36 million.
  • Social photo-sharing sites Pinterest and Instagram debut.

 

2015

  • June: Lycos introduces new line of wearable devices, announces plans to become a major player in the Internet of Things.
  • August: “Fuzzy” Mauldin returns to company as a director.

 

SOURCES: Globe research; Pew Research Center

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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