The Weird World of Tech Product Names

By  |  Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 12:44 am

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 Xplōd (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, don’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.

M0re on Technologizer:

The Ten Worst Microsoft Product Names of All Time

The Amazing World of Version Numbers




11 Comments For This Post

  1. Cale Says:

    Let's not forget that Apple used to not be so hot at naming their computers. "Performa" sounds like an early-90's Japanese 4-door sedan.

  2. Brandon Backlin Says:

    Then you had the model numbers to go with it; like the Performa 6300 (the flat desktop style) and the 6400 (the traditional tower style).

  3. Phil Stratford Says:

    Explaining that Viiv is supposed to rhyme with "live" doesn't really shed any light on the situation, as "live" might rhyme with "give" or "hive". But I think I was able to infer the correct pronunciation from the context. Not that I cared!

    Great article, though, made me chuckle.

  4. pilot352 Says:

    One note: the D7000 is the direct successor to the D90 and NOT a "lesser" camera as the article implies. The D90 has been out for a few years now. the D7000 was just release as the D90's replacement. It's actually a far better camera than both the D90 and the D3.

    I just wanted to get the record straight.

  5. OfNoConsequence Says:

    Sorry, no, the D7000 is NOT a far better camera than the D3. The D3 has a full frame (FX) sensor, the D7000 has a DX sensor. Also the D3 has a full body complete with replicated controls on the "battery grip" section. For the D7000, you have to buy an accessory to get that.

    Lastly, the D3 is the baseline for the lasted D# series. There's the D3S and the D3X, and still the baseline D3 kicks the D7000's butt for photography.

    Sure the D7000 does video recording, that's nice, but it's not a requirement for taking quality photos.

  6. minardi Says:

    Only happens when engineers take the role of naming the product instead of Marketing.

  7. Alfred Dube Says:

    'Zune' is very similar to french-canadian slang for penis 🙂

  8. andyy Says:

    Forget iYiYi. Let's go with oy, oy, oy….

  9. dholyer Says:

    Wonder how many in house product names had to be renamed because of public vulgarity limits in wordage. That would be an interesting research project. Give the idea to some 20's collage student and I bet they will make a PhD study out of it.

  10. Marcus Says:

    Very good and informative article. It show how difficult naming is, it feels like there are no rules. Really bad names can still be succesful somehow…

  11. david Says:

    Smartphone names are the worst!