How the BlackBerry, iPod and other blockbuster products got their names

Coming up with a great technology product or service is only half the battle these days. Creating a name for said product that is at once cool but not too cool or exclusionary, marketable to both early adopters and a broader audience, and, of course, isn’t already in use and protected by various trademarks and copyright laws is difficult, to say the least.

The makers of these 10 tech products — the iPod, the BlackBerry, Firefox, Twitter, Windows 7, ThinkPad, Android, Wikipedia, Mac OS X and the “big cats,” and Red Hat Linux — all have displayed certain amounts marketing savvy, common sense and fun-loving spirit in settling on their products’ names. Here are the intriguing, surprising and sometimes predictable accounts of their creation.

IPod: “Open the pod bay door, Hal”

During Apple Inc.’s MP3 player development, Steve Jobs spoke of the company’s strategy: positioning the Mac as a hub to other gadgets. Vinnie Chieco, a freelance copywriter Apple hired to help name the device before its debut in 2001, fixed on that idea, according to Wired. He brainstormed hubs of all kinds, eventually coming to the concept of a spaceship.

You could leave it, but you’d have to return to refuel. The stark plastic front of the prototype inspired the final connection: pod, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey. Add an “i” and the connection to the iMac was complete.

BlackBerry: Sweet Addictiveness

Research In Motion Ltd. called on Lexicon Branding Inc. to help name its new wireless e-mail device in 2001. The consultancy pushed RIM’s founders away from the word e-mail, which research shows can raise blood pressure. Instead, they looked for a name that would evoke joy and somehow give feelings of peace.

After someone made the connection that the small buttons on the device resembled a bunch of seeds, Lexicon’s team (see profile) explored names like “Strawberry,” “Melon” and various vegetables before settling on “BlackBerry” — a word that was pleasing and evoked the black color of the device.

Firefox: Second Time’s a Charm

Choosing a name that evokes a product’s essence and is available can be quite complicated, as the Mozilla folks found out. The early version of Mozilla’s browser was called Firebird, but because of another open-source project with the same name, the foundation’s elders renamed their browser Firefox, which is another name for the red panda.

Why? “It’s easy to remember. It sounds good. It’s unique. We like it,” they said. Best of all? Nobody else was using it.

Twitter: Connecting the Digital Flock 140 Characters at a Time

When co-founder Biz Stone saw the application that Jack Dorsey created in 2006, he was reminded of the way birds communicate: “Short bursts of information…. Everyone is chirping, having a good time.”

In response, Stone came up with “twttr,” and the group eventually added some vowels. It’s hard to think of a more evocative name in the tech world than “twitter,” but what began as what Stone described as “trivial” bursts of communication developed into a powerful means of networking, breaking news, and a forum for the 44th U.S. president’s campaign.

Windows 7: Counting on the Power of 7

While Microsoft Corp.’s next operating system is kind of a ho-hum name, one has only to look at what happened with its most recent Windows release to understand why the company might have gone back to a tried-and-true naming philosophy: Vista? Ouch. Windows 95 and XP?

Those have done much better. Microsoft’s Mike Nash announced the name this way: “Simply put, this is the seventh release of Windows, so therefore ‘Windows 7’ just makes sense.” We’re betting that Microsoft execs are hoping that No. 7 will deliver on its promise of luck — they could sure use a win after Vista.

ThinkPad: Simplicity Wins Out

The venerable line of PC notebooks rolled onto the scene in 1992. While the concept was spot on, there was turmoil at IBM as to what to call it. IBM’s pen-computing group wanted to keep it simple; they liked “ThinkPad.” But IBM’s corporate naming committee didn’t — it didn’t have a number, and every IBM product had to have a number, and how would ThinkPad translate into other languages?

Due to the chutzpah of the IBM staffer who unveiled it, “ThinkPad” won out, and it was a huge hit for IBM, which eventually sold it to Lenovo Group Ltd. in 2005.

Android: Secretive, But Still Not Exciting

You’d think the story behind the naming of the Open Handset Alliance’s new open-source platform for mobile devices, which includes the brand-new G1 loaded with Google Inc.’s goodies, would be cool. But, uh, not so much.

Back in 2005, Google quietly acquired a mysterious start-up named Android Inc., which had been operating under “a cloak of secrecy” on “making software for mobile phones,” reportedBusinessWeek. The result of all Google’s secrecy and Internet hype was the debut of T-Mobile USA Inc.’s G1 on Oct. 22, 2008.

Wikipedia: Just What It Sounds Like

According to Wikipedia, its name is a portmanteau of “wiki” (a technology for creating collaborative Web sites) and “encyclopedia” (you remember, those large books that, as kids, we ruthlessly plagiarized for school book reports).

FYI: A portmanteau is a fancy way of saying that we’re going to take two words, jam them together and (hopefully) create a new concept that people will love. So far, so good. In an illustration of the axiom “The more things change the more they stay the same,” today, kids and adults now ruthlessly plagiarize Wikipedia instead of encyclopedias.

Mac OS X and ‘The Big Cats:’ Catlike Sleekness and Style

Apple’s popular Mac OS X actually denotes the Roman numeral 10, since it’s the operating system’s tenth release, following Mac OS 9. To the ire of Apple fanboys, many people do refer to it as letter “X.”

More interesting have been the “big cat” code names assigned to every succeeding release that have stuck with Apple’s marketing: Cheetah (10.0), Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger and current kitty Leopard. Snow Leopard has been assigned for the 10.6 release, with rumors that Lynx and Cougar are in the works.

Red Hat Linux: A Name Rich with Meaning

Red Hat Inc. co-founder Bob Young has given multidimensional origins of the red fedora name:

  1. It was named after red, which in Western history is “the symbol of liberation and challenge of authority.”
  2. Co-founder Marc Ewing wore his grandfather’s red Cornell University lacrosse hat in college and became known for this tech expertise — those with problems went to see the guy in the red hat.
  3. Ewing named his software projects “Red Hat 1,” “Red Hat 2” and so on. “So, when he started his Linux project, he just named it Red Hat Linux,” Young said. All righty then!

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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