The Weird World of Tech Product Names
If breakfast cereals were named like technology products, there would be no Cocoa Krispies or Cheerios.
Instead, we'd have Kellogg's C-KR1200 and General Mills' Third-Generation CheerZero. (The futuristic-sounding Crispix might still exist). People would still devour these products as part of a balanced breakfast, but I doubt they'd understand why they had the names they had. They might even not be able to remember them.
In tech, we tolerate the names of our beloved gadgets no matter how indecipherable or convoluted. We can be happy with our laptops, digital cameras and GPS devices even if we struggle to recall them by name. I'd love to recommend my Sharp HDTV, but I couldn't help you find the same model without consulting my purchase records. (Okay fine, it's an LC40E77U.)
How do tech products get such wacky names? What's the process that leads to an obscure model number or imaginary word? Come along, and we'll explore the bizarre, confusing, and frustrating christenings of tech products famous and obscure.
Model numbers represent a sort of entropy in the tech world. Broken down, every combination of letters and numbers is simple enough. When you see "BD" as part of a product name for Sharp or LG, it's clearly referring to a Blu-ray player. You might even guess that "DMP" stands for "Digital Media Player" in Panasonic's naming schemes.
But over time, chaos grows as manufacturers tack on more letters and numbers to signify new variations on their products. My laptop, for instance, is an Asus UL80Vt-A1, which I think includes references to its ultra-light build (UL), low-voltage processor (V) and "Turbo33" overclocking feature. Though I'm happy with the product and can recall its name from memory, I won't bother mentioning it to anyone else. Unfortunately, all Asus laptops, and most laptops in general, suffer from the same mind-numbing nomenclature. Even the dead-simple Eee PC netbook line comes with suffixes - 1005PE, 1201PN, to name a couple - that are easily forgotten.
Sometimes, the relationship between model numbers is also mysterious. Nikon, for example, sells an entry-level DSLR dubbed the D3000. Better and slightly more advanced cameras are called the D5000 and the D7000. But the D90 is a higher-end model, and the D3 is fancier still. Bigger is not always better.
Nikon's D3000 touches on another common practice in tech naming: the inflated model number. Back in the earliest days of personal computing, both Apple and Radio Shack declared that their first PC was model I, and then followed it up with a II, and then a III. But as far as I know, Research in Motion has produced far fewer than 9,800 portable devices, and yet the Blackberry Torch carries this number at the end of its name. We shouldn't be surprised, given that RIM's very first product was a two-way pager called the 850, but I'm worried about what will happen in a year or two, when the model numbers have nowhere to go but quintuple digits. With any luck, RIM will dial the Blackberry odometer back to one or abandon the numbering scheme altogether, just in time for the company to ditch its existing operating system for QNX.
Alex Goldfayn, a technology marketing consultant who is writing a book on tech evangelism, is convinced that number soup prevents gadgets from becoming popular. An indecipherable model number hurts discussion in the press, in turn affecting how many people know about the product, thereby bringing down sales and preventing word of mouth, he said in an interview.
"If you make it impossible for people to talk about, think about and communicate about your products, you make it impossible for them to buy it," Goldfayn said.
Trouble starts in engineering, he said, where an obsession with tech specs leads to longer model numbers because the product makers want to show off the improvements they've made. "The problem is, the only people who know anything about these products are the people who name them," Goldfayn said.
I'll let you be the judge with one more example. Samsung was kind enough to send along some notes on cracking the code to its television model numbers, which are the only way to identify specific products. Here's how the UN55C7000 gets its name:
- "UN" stands for LED (It does?)
- "55" is the screen size
- "C" is the model year for 2010. "D" will represent televisions made in 2011.
- "7000" is the Series number, which signifies ultra-slim design, 1080p, 240Hz
Now all we need is for Best Buy to administer pop quizzes as customers exit the store.
Even if tech manufacturers eradicated model numbers from public view, we'd still have plenty of other headaches and hangups to deal with.
A string of letters and numbers might be a mouthful, but at least you can articulate them in conversation if they're short enough. As an alternative, sometimes product makers will saddle us with a name whose pronunciation is difficult to determine, expecting the tech press to break it down for everyone to understand.
My favorite example? Sony's CLIÉ, which stood for "Communication, Link, Information and Entertainment" and was the name of Sony's Palm OS-based personal digital assistants. Thanks to its mischievous accent - we'll get more into arbitrary characters later - CLIÉ is pronounced "clee-ay," though journalists tended to skip the accent, and I'm sure that a significant number of people assumed the product was pronounced "cly" or "clee."
Other tech products are unpronounceable even without the help of foreign characters. When I see a mention of Intel's Viiv, my head thinks "Viv" even though it's supposed to rhyme with "Live." Incidentally, that was the name of AMD's competing home theater PC platform. And Intel knew the name was trouble when it launched it: It released a marketing deck to partners pointing out that consumers would have trouble figuring out how to say it.
More egregious examples abound when you move beyond the major brands. Tivoli Audio's iYiYi gets mocked despite being a decent set of speakers. I understand that it's "clearly a play on the iPod brand and the Spanish interjection "ay, ay, ay," as some have guessed, but that doesn't make the name any easier to look at. OQO, the ill-fated line of mini-computers by the company of the same name, is probably pronounced like "Yoko," but the use of capital letters leaves open the possibility of a cumbersome acronym. [Editor's note: The OQO execs I met with pronounced it "O.Q.O," but I don't know if it stood for anything.]
One other fun fact: A pronounceable name in English doesn't always translate around the world. That could explain why Google, whose name is reportedly problematic for Chinese tongues, never took hold against native competitor Baidu.
The Just Plain Eccentrics
Capitalization and punctuation trickery strikes me as the easy way out. When all else fails, give an average word some funky formatting and you're all set.
Some products, like TiVo and Verizon's FiOS, slipped by without too much ribbing. TiVo's capitalization makes sense, emphasizing TV (although, apparently, the name itself is "just a fun word we made up"). But FiOS? Without a lowercase "S," the "i" just seems arbitrary, and now the whole thing kind of looks like anticipatory mockery of Apple's iOS, which is pronounced differently.
In less successful cases of weird punctuation, the tech press might never let it go. Consider, for instance, Sony's insistence that the Playstation 3 be written as PLAYSTATION 3, apparently because the company got tired of telling people to write PlayStation as two conjoined words. And so we have Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft begrudgingly capitalizing the console name until it started looking foolish.
Then, there's the enTourage eDGe, a dual-screen e-reader with E-Ink on one side and LCD on the other. The capital "DG" stands for "Digital Generation," a phrase that could apply to any portable computing device. As for the company name, a spokesman told me that the capitalized "T" in enTourage is "simply stylistic." I would've capitalized the "U," but that's why I blog for a living.
Some companies go way deeper than capitalization. Along the lines of the aforementioned CLIÉ is the Cisco umi, a telepresence tool for televisions that makes sense when pronounced correctly ("You, Me"), but honestly, how many people are up to speed on their diacritics?
Pentax appeared to be halfway towards creating a product name when it gave us the *ist line of cameras, officially pronounced like "issed." I get it. You're supposed to fill in the blank for whatever kind of *ist you are. (Here's one Pentax fan site's really long blog post in defense of the name.)
None of these products, however, trump the Casio G'zOne, a rugged phone that combines random capitalization and arbitrary punctuation into a beautiful mess. And for bonus points, it's tricky to pronounce. The proper way to say it, according to Nicole Lee at CNet, is letter "G," letter "Z" and number "One," like an ancestor of Young Jeezy. But thanks to Pizza Hut, I'll forever associate this product with the P'Zone, an excessively greasy pizza folded over itself and baked into a loose calzone interpretation. At least that name makes sense.
More Naming Nonsense
Sony seems to show up in every category on this list, despite the company's ability to create some killer product names. Walkman, Discman, HandyCam, Cyber-shot, Playstation-they all have meaning while rolling off the tongue.
But for every one of those gadgets, there's a pointless acronym like BRAVIA ("Best Resolution Audio Video Integrated Architecture") or an awkward misspelling like Xplod (there's that tricky macron again).
Neither name is as strange as Sony's Wega, originally a German audio and video manufacturer that Sony acquired, and later a name applied to high-end televisions. The products were supposedly pronounced "Vega," named after a star in the Lyra constellation, though I swear I've heard it both ways. The marketing materials seem deliberately ambiguous.
When you see a product with strange spelling, you can reliably guess that trademarks weighed on the branding process. That was the case with a couple of Mitsubishi's current televisions, according to the company's marketing vice president Frank DeMartin. After a four-month endeavor to name a line of televisions that integrate surround sound, Mitsubishi settled on "Unisen" partly because it conflates the phrase "unifying the senses," and partly because the trademark for this particular spelling was unclaimed. Among the names left on the table: Unifi, Soundscape, Cinescape, Merge, Kadence and Simphoni. (Unifi was snapped up by Real Networks, which announced a service by that name last week.)
DeMartin said that consumer electronics companies, and TV makers in particular, doesn't often spend a lot of time on branding. "A lot of stuff is just acronyms, or stands for something technical, and ‘Oh hey, you can make a word out of this,' and suddenly it becomes a sub-brand," he said.
Even though Mitsubishi puts in the extra effort on name creation - it hired a branding firm to come up with "LaserVue" for another television line - the company still relies on good old product codes to differentiate each model. With a laugh, DeMartin calls this process "pedestrian," arising only to the number of characters Mitsubishi has always used in its production line.
Yin and Yang: Apple and Microsoft Product Names
Even Apple's grumpiest critics admit the company is peerless when it comes to marketing. (A common barb: great marketing is the only reason Apple's products sell.) The company avoids many of the traps listed in this article, and although the "i" in iPod, iPad and iMac makes spell checkers go berserk, it allows Apple to distinguish its products while tacking on descriptors.
But no company is perfect, and Apple's hang-ups are tied to an obsession with simplicity. The new Apple TV, for instance, deviates sharply from previous generations with a new iOS-based interface and an emphasis on streaming instead of storage. Only the name hasn't changed. Same goes for the iPod Nano, which lopped off its bottom half, picked up a touch screen and ditched video playback and the video camera. The name makes no distinction despite the MP3 player's complete overhaul. Then there's the iMac, which has carried the same name for more than a decade, even though the computer itself has undergone repeated radical change.
Microsoft is the opposite way. The company's software naming foibles are well-documented here, with missteps like Microsoft Bob and PlaysForSure. Over in Microsoft's hardware division, you'll find the usual number soup in products like the "Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000." (No word on what happened to Bluetooth Notebook Mouses 1 through 4,999.) Also, if Microsoft sells a "Comfort Mouse," what does that say about all its other mouses?
Like the yin to Apple's yang, Microsoft occasionally strikes gold despite its reputation. Xbox and Zune are simple and catchy, so it's no surprise that Microsoft is spreading the names around with Zune music and video on the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live services on Windows Phone 7. And with Microsoft's fancy Arc Touch Mouse, you won't find any arbitrary numbers gumming up the works.
The Triumphalists: Weird Names That Work
When Nintendo revealed that its latest game console would be called the Wii, gamers cringed. They preferred the console's codename, Revolution, and they most certainly didn't like the idea of playing with their Wiis. Even the plural form of Wii is a point of confusion. (Officially, it's "Wii systems.")
Nintendo stood firm. "Wii sounds like ‘we', which emphasizes that the console is for everyone," the company explained on its website. Nintendo of American President Reggie Fils-Aime later said that "Revolution" was too long, and was unpronounceable in some parts of the world.
Why the two "i's" instead of an "e?" Nintendo said it symbolizes the shape of the controller and the image of people gathering to play. I suspect search engine friendliness also played a part, as a product called "We" could easily be crowded out.
History judged in favor of Nintendo. Wii became a hot product and a household name, and in hindsight I just can't imagine those nursing home bowlers talking about playing the Revolution.
History is also repeating itself with Apple's iPad. Ridiculed countless times for sounding like a feminine hygiene product, the name hasn't deterred millions of people from buying the tablet. And like the Wii, the iPad has convinced rival tech companies that they ought to be making tablets, too. Some of them, like Viewsonic and LG, are sticking with "Pad."
Oh yes, and some pundits panned the name "Kinect," either because Microsoft already put considerable effort into hyping the motion-sensing Xbox 360 camera's code name, Project Natal, or because they just didn't like it. With Kinect sales exceeding expectations, it looks like Microsoft got this one right.
The More Names Change...
Comparing tech products to breakfast cereals, or to any other category of goods and services, probably isn't fair. Sure, a supermarket sells thousands of products, but for the most part, they don't change. Tropicana's been selling the same few varieties of orange juice since I was a kid. I expect Rice Krispies to taste the same every time.
Tech products are different. Laptops, phones, TVs and cameras are expected to improve relentlessly, lest the competition render them obsolete, and manufacturers need to constantly generate more names for their latest creations. And just when one manufacturer is settling in to a popular line of gadgets, along comes something revolutionary, and everyone has to start from scratch. That's why tech is littered with forgotten products-and names best unremembered.
Laugh at misfires like the *ist and the G'zOne if you will. Just don't expect them to go away.
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