Hammer won’t hurt ’em

Memo to Advanced Micro Devices: Hold on to your Hammer.

The processor company has reportedly spent a lot of time at the United States Patent and Trademark Office this week, filing potential names for its forthcoming microchips. These include Metaron, Opteron, Forteon, Multeon and Vanton.

If this keeps up, AMD will certainly have a pantheon of “”eons””, but it will never have anything nearly as compelling as the code-names for its next products: Hammer, including SledgeHammer (in the high end) Clawhammer (in the low end).

Maybe Hammer is already trademarked to death, but the branding potential here is enormous. The word connotes strength, impact, momentum. By adopting it, AMD could use slogans like “”Pounding the competition”” and “”Delivers a blow.”” It could launch an ad campaign to rival that of Microsoft’s Windows XP by licensing “”If I had a hammer,”” by Peter, Paul & Mary. If retro fever manages to take bland rap music back to the mainstream, AMD could resurrect M.C. Hammer’s career by bringing “”Hammertime”” to the high-tech industry (then again, maybe they shouldn’t).

Why is the code name almost always more interesting than the actual product name? In AMD’s case, anything is an improvement over its old K-6 line, but even Intel’s engineers consistently come up with winners. McKinley (whether or not it was named after the mountain) is perfect for the firm’s high-end server chip, for example. It’s surprising AMD is considering a name change, given that one executive told me they paid a fortune to a “”naming company”” to come up with Athlon for its previous generation chip.

In some cases, code names get you into trouble. About five years ago Novell was in an upheaval (when isn’t it?) after two chief technical engineers left to form a startup firm called Wolf Mountain Group. At the time, Novell was working on a clustering technology called Wolf Mountain. The firm was reportedly under pressure to change its name. At Apple Computer Corp., meanwhile, the R&D department was burning the midnight oil to come up with a “”convergence product”” that would offer the capabilities of a PC while allowing users to play CDs and surf the Internet. They called it Columbus — and though much of that effort probably landed in the iMac in 1998, the initial journey was about as fruitful as Christopher Columbus’s search for a better spice route.

The danger in code names is that they may sound more interesting than what is actually delivered. Two years ago we heard a lot about Raven, the mysterious knowledge management suite that was under development at Lotus. Since then, I’ve never heard of anyone using it. Lotus also used “”BlueJay”” when referring to a set of extensions to Domino R5; a product manager thought I would be excited about the connection to Toronto’s baseball team.

When code names stick, they seem to stick forever. IT managers, resellers and analysts will keep using them long after the officially named product has come out, usually with an I’m-an-insider knowingness. As irritating as that may be, it’s a sure sign that a company has managed the incredible feat of capturing the attention of an audience bombarded with many other competing monikers. That’s why a company like AMD has to be wary. If you’re going to build a brand, I can think of worse tools than a hammer.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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