The Weird World of Tech Product Names

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

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 not even 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.

The Unmemorables

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.

The Unpronounceables

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 ūmi, 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.




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!