DENVER — In the far corner of a typical-looking tech office, past the pingpong table and medicine balls, past the whiteboard covered with aspirational Post-it notes, there's an old walk-in storage closet filled with reminders of a different era.
In there, the old red MapQuest logo is everywhere: on giveaway knickknacks, on little tech gadgets, tokens from a time when MapQuest had nearly 100 percent of the online mapping market. MapQuest is even included in a dusty coffee-table book titled "America's Best Brands," along with Coca-Cola and Crest. The book was published in 2005.
"The question we still get asked a lot," said Brian McMahon, MapQuest's top executive, is: "Does MapQuest still exist?" It does — but in much smaller form. MapQuest is the rare American company that changed the world and then gradually became uncool, almost forgotten, in less than a generation. It is part of tech world lore — companies such as MySpace, which exists as a music network, and America Online, which became AOL, bought MapQuest for $1.1 billion in 1999 and then was acquired itself by Verizon this month for only about four times that amount.
Most Americans long ago stopped using MapQuest's services, those turn-by-turn directions often printed out from the home desktop and scattered around the passenger seat of a car. In recent years, eclipsed by Google Maps and other swifter and better-funded competitors, MapQuest has sought a second life.
"There are very few companies that can come back from that zombie status," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research firm.
The question is whether a tech company, leveraging a familiar name, can return from that brink. In MapQuest's case, that means reminding people that it still exists, revamping its image and ultimately rebuilding its technology from the ground up. The journey is long. For every 20 smartphone users who have Google Maps, one has MapQuest's mobile app.
A few companies have made it back from near-dead status. Apple is the classic example. AOL, after a disastrous merger with Time Warner and consumers' shift to broadband, found a second act growing sideways into the less revolutionary territory of ad technology.
In a series of interviews at MapQuest headquarters, MapQuest's designers and product managers said the company hit a low two years ago. Its maps were bad — simplistic grids outclassed by vivid and detailed landscapes produced by Google Maps and other competitors.
More troubling, using MapQuest was a headache. On Google Maps, one could type in "W-H-O ..." and a series of grocery stores would pop up in the search field. In MapQuest, one had to type in, "Whole Foods, Denver, CO."
"There had been a lack of innovation," said McMahon, who took over in late 2012 as MapQuest's top executive after more than a decade with AOL. During that time, he rose through the ranks, managing business development for, among other things, the company's mail and instant messaging services.
MapQuest briefly debated changing its name, starting over with a new identity. But it decided not to, with good reason: Even now, some 40 million people — almost all of them in North America — use MapQuest at least once a month. And unlike Google Maps or Apple Maps, whose apps come pre-installed on smartphones, MapQuest had users who were actively searching for it in an app store or typing in the URL. Some analysts say those people are less valuable Internet users — slow adapters who are set in their ways — but McMahon said it's "tough to give up" on them.
Though MapQuest still has the second-highest share of the domestic market in online mapping, about 25 percent, it's a minnow when it comes to resources. Google dispatches cars across the world to map it; MapQuest's mapping detail is limited beyond North America. Nokia's competing Here mapping system has 6,000 employees; MapQuest has 100.
Even in the darkest times, MapQuest made money. It kept a bare-bones staff, sold technology and welcomed in-your-face ads. MapQuest also found ways, partnering with businesses, to burrow into less-noticed parts of the Internet. Want to find the closest Papa John's? Plug your ZIP code into the pizza company's website and a MapQuest map will pop up.
MapQuest does not disclose its earnings, but McMahon said the company is profitable. The challenge, for MapQuest, is taking that business model and using it to fund an operation that now fancies itself a quasi start-up.
The goal of the rebranding is relatively modest: providing good, usable maps. Google Maps may try to be a platform that pulls together your whole life — syncing with your calendar and pulling flight times and restaurant reservations from your email. But MapQuest offers online mapping for people who don't want to be tracked, who don't mind having to ask when they want a little extra information. Click on a restaurant, MapQuest will show you a Yelp review. Click on a hotel, you'll find content from Priceline.
It's unclear if this is enough to win people back. "Fifteen years ago, if you said I'm going to get directions, you'd say, 'Let me MapQuest the directions,' " said Bill Dollins, a geospatial consultant who has done advanced mapping for the federal government. "And nobody says that now."