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Why Tech Companies Use Code Names

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Wondering what the latest code name for a soon-to-be-released tech gadget means? Well, don't over-think it.

Take a look through the archives of the code names for past tech projects, and what you’ll see might look like just about the most random collection of words possible. IT "code names" are the made-up names that tech companies give their up and coming new products, their works in progress. In fact, when an operating system, device platform or other under-wraps development has a code name, it’s a sign that the item in question isn’t yet ready for commercial release. When it is, the company will, more likely than not, tack on a new commercial name for the product.

To many, these code names are imbued with a sense of mystery, and in some cases, they can cause some confusion about the company’s exact intent. So what do these names mean anyway? Good question. Let’s take a look at how – and why – the tech industry is so fond of these funny little monikers.

Why Speak in Code?

In some cases, creating series ideas for code names helps internal teams to save time in coming up with the next new moniker for an updated version of a product. That’s how you get, for example, a set of Mozilla Firefox editions code-named after parks around the world, or WordPress releases with recognizable names like Mingus and Coltrane.

Another big trend that helps keep code naming conventions straight at some companies is as simple as the alphabet game. Alphabetic assignments in tech go much like the names given to major weather events like Katrina, Irene or Sandy. So, when Google executives want to come up with a catchy nickname for the next Android design, they just have to move on to the next letter of the alphabet, and, in this case, think of a tasty treat to complement the existing Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jellybean. Mmmmm….

The randomness of these assignments, in some ways, mirrors what you hear in the U.S. military, where words like Eggplant, Bravo and Charlie replace letters for the purposes of clear audio broadcasting. Tech code names are, like these words, just placeholders for ideas, and while semiotics professors love to point out that all language is symbolic, the arbitrary nature of these lists definitely gives readers more of a sense of the disconnect between the name and what it describes, although in Google’s case, it also gives us a pretty good sense of the company’s corporate culture!

Creating OS Names for Curb Appeal

Always forward-thinking, the top brass at Apple were not content to just paste any old names on anything, even their evolving OS versions. After going through a number of music-based titles, Apple shifted to the strategy of naming Mac OS X 10 versions after powerful cats such as the jaguar, panther, tiger and snow leopard. Giving pre-release products names that pop can have a positive impact on how a brand is seen in the market prior to the unveiling of its biggest and best new thing. Thats may be especially true for Apple considering all the media attention each new release from this company receives.


Naming Quirks: More Tech Industry Conventions

Another way to look at the sets of code names you see from a tech company is by contrasting these with other kinds of somewhat arbitrary names in another field. Let’s take the auto industry as an example. Car makers, including the American ones, have a way of using mostly recognizable household words and throwing in a couple of inscrutable extras. We get the word associations from the Chevy Impala, Malibu and Sonic, while Cruze, on the other hand, looks more like a typo, and I’ll bet nobody in your office is going to know what an Aveo even is. On the other hand, when tech companies start naming, they tend to choose a concept and stick with it pretty rigidly, which makes sense to all of those programmers who have done their Adam-naming-the-animals routines with variables, subroutines and the like, in 2 a.m. cram sessions.

Case Study: Microsoft’s "Longhorn"

When Microsoft teams started working on a replacement for the XP operating system and people started hearing about "Longhorn," most of us didn’t have much of an idea of what the new OS would be. We knew one thing, though: It sounded good. It sounded like steakhouses, Arizona ranches and eight-second TV triumphs, implying that whatever it was, the new version would be kicking up a good bit of dust in tech media.

But prior to its 2007 release, the name also spurred some speculation about what the Microsoft folks "meant" by it. Some opined that Longhorn was a deliberate play to associate the new OS with a strong, telegenic mammal (hint: it’s also the animal we associate with an upticks in the stock market). After the dust cleared, though, consumers found that the code name Longhorn wasn’t really based on zoology at all (and many also found they liked XP better.)

We now know that Longhorn was named after, of all things, a bar at a ski resort. Along with names like Whistler (precursor to XP) and Blackcomb (Windows 7), Longhorn was just another name from a scenic getaway. This really tells us all we need to know about IT code names. In the end, it’s a few people in a room somewhere spinning a wheel and, often, thinking about taking a vacation.

It’s important to note here that although Apple stuck with its feline system for Mac OS models, new iOS versions are also based on ski resorts. As for why people at the big tech players favor skiing over, say, water sports, that’s another story altogether. Suffice it to say that when someone’s talking about a new hush-hush project with a top secret code name, it’s best not to over think it.

Code names for IT products often represent some kind of inside joke among the company’s internal staff. They’re not meant to be profound titles capturing the essence of the product; that’s what the subsequent commercial names are for. Rather, IT code names are just whimsical, and it’s probably counterintuitive to read too much into them. The best you can do is check out the product’s specs and wait for its formal debut.


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Justin Stoltzfus
Justin Stoltzfus

Justin Stoltzfus is an independent blogger and business consultant assisting a range of businesses in developing media solutions for new campaigns and ongoing operations. He is a graduate of James Madison University.Stoltzfus spent several years as a staffer at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Penn., before the merger of the city’s two daily newspapers in 2007. He also reported for the twin weekly newspapers in the area, the Ephrata Review and the Lititz Record.More recently, he has cultivated connections with various companies as an independent consultant, writer and trainer, collecting bylines in print and Web publications, and establishing a reputation…