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Monday, September 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Quirky code names inspire developers and hype products

Los Angeles Times

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates introduces Windows XP in 2001. For company insiders, however, the operating system was called Whistler.
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Some 15 centuries after the fall of Rome, Microsoft engineers have been toiling to resurrect Janus, ancient gatekeeper to heaven.

Microsoft adopted the deity as an internal code name for a system that controls digital music and video stashed on computers and portable players.

When Janus debuted recently, though, the program bore a less evocative name: Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10.

The transformation is typical for technology products that have colorful, often geeky, monikers while in development, only to appear on store shelves under the most mundane names imaginable.

IBM's Shark evolved into TotalStorage Enterprise Storage Servers. Apple Computer's Killer Rabbit was renamed AppleShare 3.0. And Microsoft's Snowball became merely Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

It's the reverse in most other industries, where pedestrian code names get replaced by catchy brands. Inside General Motors, for instance, the forthcoming Pontiac Solstice roadster was just project GMX020.

But the technology industry's culture is famously less buttoned-down than that of Detroit or Wall Street. Suffusing that culture is the belief among programmers and engineers that they're working on The Next Big Thing — projects that change the world, not just deliver a more absorbent diaper or crunchier breakfast cereal.

Microsoft products' code names

Chicago: Windows 95

Memphis: Windows 98

Whistler: Windows XP

Longhorn: Upcoming version of Windows

Blackcomb: Next server version of Windows.

Yukon: Upcoming version of SQL Server

Corona: Windows Media Player 9 Series

Stinger: Windows version for the Smartphone

Titanium: Version of Microsoft Exchange Server

Mira: Windows Smart Display devices

Cairo: Early networking operating system that didn't materialize

Although marketing departments will ultimately replace most of the colorful monikers with new versions of familiar, easy-to-sell brands, the importance of code names in the development of digital products is hard to overstate.

The financial stakes are huge. A new software program or chip design can take years to bring to market and devour millions — or even billions — in capital before it generates a dime of revenue. All the while, competitors are racing to build something smarter and faster that will make existing technology obsolete, giving rise to a state of chronic paranoia.

Faced with that sort of intrigue, few geeks turn down the chance to bestow a secretive pet name on a project before company executives weigh in with potential trademark violations and focus-group feedback.

"A product manager can be defined as someone who has all of the responsibility and none of the power. It's a thankless job," said former Apple Computer technology evangelist Guy Kawasaki, the author of several business books. "One thing the product manager can do is give the code name to the product. Typically, he comes up with a clever name in the middle of the night, and hopefully management doesn't find out until it's ingrained."

In Apple's early years, the right name helped fire up engineers faced with the tedious prospect of spending years writing millions of lines of computer code.

"You needed a cool name to put on a T-shirt, and you needed a T-shirt to give to people," said former Apple engineer Erich Ringewald. "It was part of getting people excited enough to work 70 hours a week."

Keeping secrets

The first job of a code name is, of course, to keep a project secret — a tradition that business borrowed from the military.

Even the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials was deemed too revealing for the effort to develop the first atomic bomb, a campaign that came to be known instead as the Manhattan Project.

Similarly, Intel adopted a new naming system after the maker of the Pentium, Pentium II and Pentium III computer chips realized that the internal designations P, P2 and P3 left little to the imagination of rivals.

The Pentium 4 chip was known before its launch as Willamette, one of the first dubbed under a system that uses names of places. Intel has called other chips and chip sets Banias, Merced and Grantsdale — names, respectively, of an Israeli spring, a California river and a Montana town.

The system isn't flawless. Even though the names are intended for internal consumption, they frequently leak out. When they do, trademark owners and even individuals protective of their good names can take offense.

Intel's upcoming 64-bit chip was named Tanglewood until lawyers for the Boston Symphony Orchestra pointed out that Tanglewood isn't a town. It's a private estate the orchestra uses for summer concerts. And it's trademarked. The chip was rechristened Tukwila, the suburb south of Seattle, and is expected to ship sometime after 2005.

In 1993, Apple managers who were unsure whether the Power Macintosh 7100 would ever make it to market, named it Sagan, after the popular but speculative astronomer, Carl Sagan. When the human Sagan got wind of the mock tribute, he asked Apple to drop the name.

Zinger name

Apple renamed the machine BHA, which Sagan correctly surmised was short for Butt-Head Astronomer.

Sagan sued for libel and lost.

But after Apple attorneys settled other aspects of the case, the engineers promptly changed the code name a final time, to LAW, short for Lawyers Are Wimps.

After that, "the lawyers became involved and started having guidelines, saying the term has to be so generic that you don't have a possibility of getting into trouble for it," said a former marketing executive at Apple, which declined to discuss its process. "It was a lot more fun before."

Apple also took evasive action after the Sagan episode. It switched code names mid-project and assigned different terms for the same work, leaving a trail in case it needed to trace new leaks.

Some veterans said the subterfuge succeeded mainly in confusing Apple's own staff.

"They'd say 'We're briefing people on Columbia,' and you'd panic and say, 'Wait, I don't know about that one,' and they'd say, 'Oh, Columbia is Snoopy,' " said the former marketer.

"You almost needed a decoder ring to keep track."

With the rise of the Internet, it's harder than ever for companies to keep projects secret. So a few companies are trying to take advantage of that fact, using code names as marketing devices to build buzz among business partners and the early adopters who lead geek culture.

IBM, annoyed at a business columnist who called its costly mainframe computers "dinosaurs," fired back last year by naming its z990 mainframe T-Rex. In the same vein, chip maker Advanced Micro Devices, perennially second to Intel, code-named its first 64-bit chip for mid-size computers SledgeHammer, hinting that it intended to pound its much bigger rival with the product.

Before SledgeHammer was ready to ship, AMD changed its name to Opteron.

Apple has gone even further, adopting quasi-code names driven by marketing. Its latest operating system, Mac OS X version 10.3, was originally code-named Pinot. Apple replaced it with the more dramatic Panther and put that tag on the packaging.

Several other code names have won second lives as product titles, including Apple's Newton handheld device and Pippin, its failed game console.

Before it hit store shelves, Windows XP was known inside Microsoft as Whistler, after the ski mountain. The next version is code named Longhorn, after the Longhorn Saloon, in the saddle between Whistler and neighboring Blackcomb mountain.

At an Apple conference last year, Chief Executive Steve Jobs took glee in goring Microsoft on the horns of its own naming scheme. As he touted the advances in Panther, Jobs showed a video clip of a stalking black panther while wondering aloud what the competition was up to.

Then he cut to footage of a Longhorn bull in a field, staring at the camera. The crowd howled.

Family ties

Jobs himself was the subject of considerable industry ridicule 21 years ago after Apple brought out a $10,000 computer named Lisa, for Jobs' oldest daughter.

The machine flopped, and Jobs' three other children haven't had computers named for them.

Even the gods have their frailties. Janus originally was code-named Mercury, the Roman messenger to the immortals.

Microsoft, though, proved not to be as fleet of foot as the wing-shoed Mercury. Products using the software were supposed to be on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2003, but they weren't.

Microsoft dropped Mercury, disbanded the team and started over with Janus, also known as the god of new beginnings.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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